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Varla Jean Merman and the Unspeakable Act of Assimilation

Last night, David and I prevailed on my in-laws to sit with the kids and ambled from our sleepy vacation spot in Wellfleet, MA to Provincetown. After a predictably low-key but excellent dinner at Cafe Heaven, we were ready for something more dazzling: Varla Jean Merman‘s Loose Chanteuse performance at the ArtHouse.

VJM is a whip-smart crackle of manic energy: able to glide to operatic heights, write and produce videos of snapshot genius, rap with street-savvy accuracy, and perform on-the-fly acts of performing derring-do that — abetted by the tidal tumbler of Myers’s Rum and tonic I’d downed — left me helpless. The few game straights in the audience struggled to keep up with the stream of gay-only references (some were even more targeted to “older gays”; as she pointed out, the audience was “riddled with them.”) I was reminded of another P’town show I’d seen, long ago, where the comic first asked whether there were any “straight folks” in the audience and then, after a few hesitant hands had gone up, shouted: “Get ’em!”

By “long ago” I mean: Before I had kids. And this brings me to the one real downer of the evening.

Tomorrow begins Family Pride Week here in P’town. So this gave Varla Jean a big, fat target that she hit again and again — even more often than she plumbed the comedic possibilities of Ambien). Most of it was fun: “Family Week seems like two weeks.” I bet that’s right, for many of those without kids. (Although one could always choose any other week of the entire summer for vacation if being around children were seen as that much of a crimp in one’s style.)

But some of it was quite ugly — on both sides of the performer-audience divide. When she mentioned “gays with kids,” there were more than a few hisses from the crowd. (She handled this well, offering that they’d “already started blowing up the balloons.” Yes, hisses.

We were appalled, but with reflection, I’m less than shocked. There probably isn’t anything that more suggests assimilation to the LGBT community — especially older members of that community — than the conformity to middle-class values that can be (too) easily equated with raising children. And surely no gay person at a Varla Jean Merman show wants to be reminded of these values after seeing the star talking to her diseased liver and then defeating it through heavy drinking of a substance too vile to mention here. (The video is from the “Don’t Eat Out, Varla Jean” series (see! punctuation is important); I couldn’t find it on youtube, but this one is great, too.)

Everything else, though is cute or cool: VJ called two couples up to congratulate them on their impending (same-sex) weddings, to more than polite applause (and no boos or catcalls) from the audience. She showcased her dog in a series of photos: more oohs! and ahhs! The pianist (lots of good puns there from the star) proudly announced that, in his mid-40’s, he’d just gotten involved in “adult movies,” and also received applause — presumably because of a combination of his undeniable sexiness and the career accomplishment of having broken into a market usually dominated by younger men, and at an age greater than Isabella Rossalini’s when Lancome dumped her as a model.

And then: VJ talked about the gay couples and “their inner city children.” The combination of classism and racism was jaw-dropping, and not mitigated by any jokey, or winking, disclaimers.

The P’town Library, where I’m sitting to write this, is about to close. I feel a lot more welcome here than I did at certain parts of the VJM show.

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