Obie Winner Ain Gordon’s play 217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous gives its spectacular NYC premiere in the Baryshnikov Arts Center’s Jerome Robbins Theater.
The play is about Dr. John Fryer, the gay psychiatrist who successfully convinced the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from their list of mental illnesses in 1972.
Before the play begins, the audience takes measure of the stage, which is filled with small, gray boxes (one assumes 217 without counting); these boxes represent the archives of Fryer’s notes and research. Behind them, a large screen presents an image of Fryer, masked as he was during his speech to the APA.
Rather than resort to a traditional re-enactment of history, playwright Ain Gordon uniquely chooses to tell his story through the monologues of three different people as they stroll among the boxes, filling our ears and minds with their memories and reflections of Dr. John Fryer. They are:
Alfred A. Gross: a confirmed bachelor “swish” who in the 1960’s assisted homosexual men that were “in trouble with themselves, the law or society”. Gross describes his first meeting with Fryer, who later joined efforts with Gross several years before Fryer’s famous speech. Derek Lucci’s performance of this character is sweat-drenched, dramatic, triumphant, and bedazzled.
Katherine Luder: Fryer’s personal secretary for twenty-four years until her death at 91. Luder proceeds to give an accounting of her life and times with Fryer. Laura Esterman (Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Obie Award winner for Marvin’s Room) is, in a word, exquisite as Luder, giving a funny, delicate, intimate, and fierce portrayal of this woman who declared herself “platonically married” to Fryer, many decades her junior, in the years she knew and worked for him.
Ercel Ray Fryer: Dr. Fryer’s father, who died in 1970 without ever openly acknowledging his son’s sexuality. Ercel shares bittersweet, wistful remembrances of his son as well as a recounting of the pivotal APA address. This role was intensely and sincerely played by Ken Marks, who had the additional challenges of expressively portraying a culturally conservative heterosexual man and having a large majority of his lines be a recitation of John Fryer’s APA speech.
The play itself is a brilliant, ingenious piece of writing. Rich, cerebral and almost poetic, the script enjoys a life on the written page as well as on the acted stage. It is a credit to the performers for making this dense prose as conversational as it appeared. Whether read or seen, the play deserves and earns an audience.
The details of the historic APA event might not be known to most gay men today, but it certainly has been pivotal to their “evolution of revolution”. As Alfred Gross states: “I was the Cro-Magnon of homosexual freedom – so John could walk upright – so you could march! There’s your evolution.”
217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous enjoys a short but stellar run at The Jerome Robbins Theater at the Baryshnikov Arts Center (West 37th between 9th/10th Avenues) May 3-9. For tickets/information, visit here.