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It’s a jolting rollercoaster, watching Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley’s Circle Jerk. You’re giggling at a camp aside or momentary outbreak of disco, then suddenly pummeled with a piercing cultural critique of gay white male identity.
In 2018, in the Next Door space at New York Theatre Workshop, with bare-bones staging, Breslin and Foley somehow evoked the big-drama, big-emotion madness of Bravo’s Real Housewives, alongside some unexpected profundity sprouting from the franchise’s sudsy entrails. In Circle Jerk (streaming to Nov. 7), they again locate serious depths in some deliciously absurdist shallows while examining online culture, liberal gays, and white supremacy in a kind of fantastical realm—“Gaymen Island,” which could be Fire Island, but also a Shakespearean space like Illyria in Twelfth Night.
There, a lunatic far-right gay overlord wants, with the help of a sidekick, to create the perfect online avatar to win liberal white gays over to their right-wing dark side. So, there’s a dash of Frankenstein too. And there are two characters called Michael and Patrick, wittily and testily asking each other what it means to be white gay men. The action mostly takes place in a purgatorial-feeling room that doesn’t look at all fantastical.
Breslin and Foley, who founded the theater and media collective Fake Friends, call Circle Jerk “a queer comedy about the tragedy of being gay,” and by that they mean an unsparing interrogation of themselves and others. The criticism isn’t just of “white gay men” as a block, but an examination of how queer culture has evolved for good, and bad.
Just as they dressed up dizzyingly in This American Wife, as themselves and others, so they do here: Breslin and Foley and Cat Rodriguez (who plays Eva Maria, the avatar they create), play nine characters between them. The play is performed as live. You see hints of backstage and quick changes—but really it’s baffling how they do it.
“We started our research for this show with a lot of articles about gay men on the ‘alt right,’ ‘alt lite,’ ‘far right,’ whatever you want to call it,” Breslin told The Daily Beast. “Then, our thinking about the show expanded and we began to think about ourselves more deeply and our friends and experiences in the gay community, specifically in ‘white gay’ spaces.”
“While the characters aren’t autobiographical, the debates between Michael and Patrick are really personal,” said Breslin. “What good does it do to separate ourselves from the racism and misogyny of ‘white gay’ culture—because we want some sort of claim on wokeness? These issues are obviously structural and we are embedded in them: How do we profit off them? Identifying as a liberal on social media clearly doesn’t just make all of that go away.”
“On the other hand, throwing your hands in the air and saying ‘Fuck it, it doesn’t matter’ also is not helpful at all,” said Foley. “What does using your privilege for the greater good actually look like? Messy. Patrick’s character says ‘You’re gonna fuck up.’ Which is also another way of saying: ‘You already have.’ None of us are pure or clean and we need to incorporate the reality of our own complexities.”
Of the almost universally celebrated re-customizing of the #ProudBoys hashtag by gay men, Breslin said, “If those white gays who re-appropriated that hashtag had marched with Black Lives Matter, had a history of grassroots organizing, had a stated commitment to anti-racist education and investigating their own white privilege…it might be, like, a little bit funny. We don’t want to be totally humorless, you know? But, the Proud Boys represent a despicable virus in American society and there are more sophisticated ways of resisting them than posting a picture of yourself on Fire Island.”
Foley said they had done a research trip to Fire Island last summer “that ended in a really disturbing moment of a bunch of white gay men chanting at Cat to ‘Go home.’ So that experience was really formative for us.” Most broadly, he and Breslin “were obsessed with contemporary debates about representation, empathy, and identity and how these debates relate to the onslaught of social media we consume daily, even by the minute.”
Netflix’s The Social Dilemma, illustrating the impact of the online world on all our lives, may have caused a recent stir, but Breslin said he and Foley “were really diving into these questions about Big Tech and fake news and deep fakes and the vitality and contagion of propaganda over a year ago at the start of this project.” Their research included “a fascinating back-and-forth with a deep fake programmer out of Tel Aviv.”
Their other research touchstones are Contrapoints on YouTube, Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair, Jia Tolentino’s work on Instagram and social media, Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, and Hilton Als’s Pulitzer Prize-winning White Girls.
“We were inspired by the—highly questionable and historically problematic—notion that democracy and homosexuality were invented at the same time,” said Breslin.
One main artistic inspiration was Charles Ludlam, downtown overlord of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, founded in 1967. The panoply of other inspirations are revealed in the texture of the piece: the movie Ex Machina, virtual influencer Lil Miquela, the original 1931 Frankenstein movie (and the Mary Shelley novel), Grease Live!, radio plays, Noël Coward, the plays of Robert O’Hara, Larry Kramer’s The American People, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. A dyed-haired troll was inspired by Fellini’s Satyricon, John Waters, and Bouffon-style clowning.
“Most of our work revolves around self-critique,” Foley said of its interrogation of gay men. “I think we started this play with one idea of how to answer this question (‘White gay men are bad,’ which is the obvious internet take) and have arrived at more complex and, honestly, challenging questions.”
“Of course, there are so many incredible white gay men who have worked as activists and organizers for their entire lives, especially coming out of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 90s,” said Breslin. “And even now! But we also have to acknowledge that there are MAGA Republican Trump-supporting gay men—and women, and trans people, and Black people, and Latinx people. How can we represent this complexity of how the left considers ‘identity?’ Having a marginal identity does not fundamentally make you a liberal.”
There is one moment when the friends in the play fall out viciously over their political differences. “We love fighting on stage and that scene took up until our final rehearsal a week ago to really perfect,” said Breslin. “But this scene really relates to the previous question about white gay liberal identity and friendship. How do you hold someone accountable who has the exact same identity as you, without revealing your own hypocrisies?”
“In a way that scene is the biggest expression of love in the play because you only fight that intensely with someone you truly care about,” said Foley. “There’s sort of an Id versus superego fight happening there that is always of interest to us.”
The play’s questions around identity and culture are posited amid a dizzying array of songs and visuals, hence the clash of humor and dead-seriousness. “The media in the show is used pretty specifically to embed the characters in a fabric of constant content,” said Breslin.
“We drew from our own media obsessions (as white gay men) to fill out this landscape. The mash-up feeling was critical to us to capturing the spirit of scrolling through an Instagram or Twitter or Facebook feed. In some ways, we hope our use of collage emulates that algorithmically generated visual experience. We worked in tandem with Rory Pelsue, our co-director and really the captain of the tech and cueing ship, to develop a theatrical language that felt specific and dynamic.” (The work of dramaturg Ariel Sibert, video designer David Bengali, sound designer Kathy Ruvuna, costume designer Cole McCarty, and production designer Steph Cohen was also key, said Breslin.)
In the world of Circle Jerk, the online world is seductive but ultimately terrible. “To me the internet feels like fast food—I crave it but after too much I feel like shit,” said Breslin. “It’s great that more people get to eat but the nutritional value is dubious and the long term effects are scary. But the way we have, as a society, grown to accept constant surveillance and a total lack of privacy as a given is important to the piece. There’s a great New York Times interview with Jack Dorsey—where he describes Twitter as a tool akin to the wheel and any criticism of it as somehow ahistorical—that was inspirational.”
If you loved their granular understanding of Housewives lore, rest assured the same goes for The Hills and The O.C. in Circle Jerk. “We are so obsessed with The Hills and Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag, and so much of our gay identities were formed by compulsively watching these reality shows. We see ourselves through the images of these white women in California in the mid-2000s. That’s pretty striking, lol.”
“Then there’s the question of the white gay’s relationship to black female culture, which is also threaded through the play,” said Foley. “There’s just so much about the media we consume, and we’re always interested in the ways it infects our minds and creative spirits. I think the fact that the most intimate scene between our eponymous characters is a lip-sync of a reality TV show sort of speaks for itself.”
Jeremy O. Harris, who wrote Slave Play—most recently nominated for a record number of Tony play awards—supported the show with the largest financial gift (he was also Breslin’s roommate at Yale). “This show was only possible because of that money and Jeremy’s really beautiful commitment to the work we do,” said Breslin. “We couldn’t be more thrilled for him after the Tony nominations… I remember reading the first draft of Slave Play back when we were roommates at Yale and sort of knowing…this is it.” Foley added, “Jeremy is truly an incredible artist who understands the value of supporting other artists and creating systems to allow for less ‘normal’ voices to be heard. He’s also a community builder, constantly connecting like-minded people.”
Depending on how the run of Circle Jerk goes, Breslin and Foley would love to do another coronavirus-era live-stream project—most likely, a revival of This American Wife, given recent major storylines in their favorite Housewives shows.
“We have so much to add and to discuss, mostly the Potomac women, who were really just starting off when we did the show the first time a few years back,” Breslin said. “We have to address Monique and Candiace (cast-members whose physical fight has had profound implications for the whole show and their cast-mates). We also have to address the lesbian drama from the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. I am team Brandi, and believe that Denise Richards used her system power as a celebrity to cover up her shady nonsense.” (In the most recent season Brandi Glanville alleged she’d had a relationship with Denise Richards. There was much controversy about how it was discussed by the women on the show.)
Breslin and Foley are also developing a screenplay, and are commissioned to write a new show for Ars Nova and Seaview Productions (the lead producers of Slave Play on Broadway). “So, we’re busy,” said Foley. “We also are launching our campaign for the digital Pulitzer this week.”