Dr. Anonymous: Theater Review

Ed Krieger
A flawed but compelling look at ‘conversion therapy’ in the gay community of 1972 Philadelphia.

Guy Frederick Glass' drama is redeemed through stirring work by director and cast and a text which, despite its flaws, comes through in a heartfelt way.

Three years after Stonewall, the 1969 Greenwich Village riot that helped galvanize the gay movement, communities in Michigan and California passed laws decriminalizing homosexuality, and at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami, George McGovern called for the first-ever gay rights plank in the party platform. Up until then, homosexuality was considered a form of mental illness to be treated with ‘conversion therapy,’ which was believed to make a gay person straight. Today the treatment is considered harmful by mental health experts and is outlawed in California and New Jersey, though still practiced by some.

That same year, at a convention of the American Psychiatric Association, Dr. John E. Fryer, using a voice distortion device and wearing a bizarre mask to protect his identity and his livelihood, took the mike and proclaimed, “I am a homosexual. I am a psychiatrist.” His remarks triggered a debate that led to homosexuality being removed from the APA’s list of mental disorders a year later. This dramatic event is the impetus for Guy Frederick Glass’ insightful new play, Dr. Anonymous.

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A closeted homosexual, Matthew, (Matt Crabtree), is being interviewed by Edward (Barry Pearl), for entry into the American Psychiatric Association, a seal of approval that will allow him to open a thriving practice. A series of questions lead to him being revealed as a homosexual, leaving Matthew no chance of joining the APA. But Edward has a solution: Conversion Therapy. Once Matthew is cured, he will be admitted.

Though he undergoes some sessions, the therapy doesn’t take as he moves in with Jake, (Kevin Held), a political activist protesting Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo’s targeting of the gay community. There are echoes of The Normal Heart here as the play broadens from an intimate story to a wider social context.

When Matthew opens a practice unsanctioned by the APA, one of his first patients is Dudek, (Richard Sabine), a leather guy who hates himself for being gay. In Matthew he finds a sympathetic listener, but Dudek’s self-loathing is so deep that Matthew’s acceptance only enrages him.

When Dudek later stumbles into Matthew’s office and discovers him having sex with Jake, he takes the matter to Edward who insists Matthew reenter conversion therapy or else lose his practice. It is here in the middle of the play, confronted with self-denial and the possibility of losing Jake for good, Matthew’s greatest challenge is played off stage instead of in front of the audience. For some reason at its most critical juncture his story becomes less important than Jake’s opera-loving friend, John (Christopher Frontiero) and his newfound heartthrob, Andrew, (Jonathan Torres) who provide comic relief in a way that is neither.

A practicing psychiatrist by day and a writer by night, playwright Glass is primarily interested in character, issues and opera, (in that order), but seemingly not plot or pacing. And while Crabtree delivers a riveting performance as Matthew, secondary characters are sketched in, including Broadway veteran Barry Pearl who is spellbinding as Edward, particularly in the opening scene, which is in many ways the play’s best, despite his dialogue laden with stereotypical Yiddish signifiers.

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Director John Henry Davis, who is reuniting with Glass after working together on 2010’s The Last Castrato, takes us into the expansive mental space of the characters so effectively he defies the cramped contours of black-box theater. His work, especially with his leads, is so natural it becomes invisible, but there are problems in the material that not even he can overcome.

Matt and Jake are meant to be the emotional heart of the play but they seem unsuited to each other, less like a couple and more like a casual fling. They share only a few scenes together and exhibit little chemistry before they are parted through crisis, a development that fails to deliver its intended emotional punch. And later, when Matthew learns he will never see Jake again, the moment is played impassively, almost as an afterthought.

Although the finale that puts Matthew at the podium of the APA Convention echoing John Fryer’s defiant declaration plays out almost farcically, Dr. Anonymous is redeemed through stirring work by director and cast and a text which, despite its flaws, comes through in a heartfelt way.