Vamp Until Ready – James Magruder (Rattling Good Yarns Press)

If you didn’t know I was gay, you certainly would have looking at my Facebook feed over the Thanksgiving weekend, as it was jampacked with Sondheim tributes on the occasion of his demise. I’ve often wondered what it is about the stage that attracts a disproportionate number of gay men, and although James Magruder’s Vamp Until Ready doesn’t provide much explanation of that phenomenon, it certainly proves the point.

Vamp Until Ready tracks the exploits of the cast and crew of the Hangar Summer Theatre, a summer stock outfit based in Ithaca, NY, over several seasons. Its five parts span this time period through the eyes of five characters: gay Cary Dunkler, adopted along with his gay brother Dave, Kristy Schroyer and Isa Vass, who both love Kristy’s husband, Judy Gabelson, who goes to Ethopia to put on a show, and straight guy Mark Shinner, who dates Kristy post-divorce. They all weave in and out through each others’ stories, their relationships changing as they come together, split apart, and reconnect through the years.

Cary’s first story details his affair with Larry Brownstein, a Hangar bigwig, as he’s being cast in the chorus of the Hangar’s presentation of Damn Yankees, directed by Gavin Steeg, who also happens to be Cary’s brother Dave’s boyfriend. Cary splits his time between Ithaca and NYC, sometimes working at the Army/Navy store in Ithaca with his friend and manager Kristy Schroyer. She and her Greek nanny/housekeeper/Hangar actress Isa are the focus of the second part, where Isa has an affair with Kristy’s husband, Wayne, as Kristy drops him and starts dating Mark Shinner. Isa also starts Kristy’s daughter, Darcie, on the stage. Then we go from Ithaca to Ethopia as we follow Cary’s friend Judy Gabelson and her attempt to stage, produce, and write songs for an Ethiopian student’s play, Mango Roses. Then, back to Ithaca as Mark Shinner tells his side of the Kristy Schroyer debacle, and we pick up the story of her daughter, Darcie, who’s now a big star thanks to a well-timed soap opera part. There’s also a death (no spoilers), then we circle back to Cary for the finale.

Magruder’s plot and prose are so engaging and the stories so intertwined that it’s hard to distinguish a favorite, but because of the flavor and color of its locale, I had to choose Judy Gabelson’s trip to Ethiopia as a high point. She doesn’t begin as a strong character, but she certainly develops strength living there and courting her muse at the same time she’s trying to get used to a totally new (to her) culture.

That’s not to short the domestic side of things. The goings-on at the Hangar are always interesting, both in terms of people and of art. I’ve seen Damn Yankees, but not a stage adaptation of Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson or Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. This is probably as close as I’ll get to those, not to mention Mango Roses. But no matter if your taste runs to the mundane or the absurd, you’ll find plenty to love in Vamp Until Ready.

JW

© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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