The Cino and other Off-Off-Broadway venues carved out a place for gay men to explore ways of acting out openly queer identities, which eventually reshaped mainstream American culture. “Homosexuality,” Michael Smith noted, “was unmentionable at the time.” Robert Heide learned this lesson in 1961 when he wrote a play, West of the Moon, in which two men stood in a Christopher Street doorway seeking shelter from the rain. As the play unfolds, an older hustler takes advantage of a naive preacher’s son who had just arrived in town. Establishment critics were repulsed, and a Theatre Arts Magazine reviewer said Heide “should break his typewriter over his hands.” But Joe Cino liked it, and told Heide in his own eccentric way, “I want you to write a play just like West of the Moon, for two blond Nazi men.” The Bed featured two very attractive men in an existential time warp, drinking and drugging for three days. Joe Cino had no second thoughts about staging a show about two men in a bed, unlike Broadway producers of the time. “The Cino was very relaxed about people being gay,” Smith said. “So it was no big deal there and no one judged you that way. It was an outsider place because these people had no other place to show their work. There were a lot of gay plays there early on, like Lanford Wilson’s The Madness of Lady Bright.” That show was a heartbreaking little masterpiece, a Valentine to loneliness featuring an openly gay main character—the first of many written by Wilson, who developed into a major American playwright and eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, among many other honors.
From Chapter 9 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
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