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Writing for CurtainUp NYC Weather
|A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
At least we know he can play the Hur part.
Rick (Adam Greer) is a novelist turned screenwriter who is described as a "humorless ideologue". (It's Hollywood, 1955, and he's both a Commie and a homo.) Richard Day is a TV writer turned playwright. Whatever we may say of him, it's clear he's neither humorless nor an ideologue. This, the premiere of his maiden voyage into playwriting, is filled with funny stuff, but don't go expecting it to be married to any sort of political agenda. This is uptown gay theater: Straight-Jacket looks back on the Fifties with nothing but a nostalgic smile.
Day's day job is as the executive producer of TV's Spin City. He has been nominated for three Emmy Awards, most recently for writing for The Larry Sanders Show. This play shows the steady hand and assured comic instincts, as well as lack of depth, we would expect from a good sit-com journeyman. It's sometimes smart, sometimes corny, sometimes hackneyed and sometimes predictable, but it never loses it way. There will be those who will be offended by its gay stereotyping, and others (like the man sitting behind me who grunted an exasperated "Oy" at every hint of gay intimacy) who, I suppose, will just be offended. However, the preponderance of the audience will be entertained if not particularly enriched.
Guy Stone (John Littlefield) is a barely concealed surrogate for Rock Hudson in the Fifties, a time when his career was endangered by his promiscuous gayness. The studio executive, Saul Goldbergini (Mal Z. Lawrence) -- his Italianated last name one of the show's numerous running jokes -- having just offered him the lead in Ben Hur, learns Guy is queer. He plans to can him, but Guy's agent, Jerry (Jackie Hoffman), has another idea: to save his job and reputation by marrying him to a ditzy but proper studio secretary, Sally (Carrie Preston). It works, and Guy sets up housekeeping with his new naive, mainstream, unsuspecting bride.
Meanwhile, Guy falls in love, improbably, with a young gay writer, the aforementioned Rick. Rick is everything Guy is not. He pummels Guy with new ideas Guy doesn't even start to understand: urging him, as an example, not "to participate in his own oppression". For his part, Guy doesn't "get" Communism: ". . . and they call it a party!" he offers. But Rick is a tidy way to integrate Hollywood's "red scare" into the story line, while making Straight-Jacket a suitably Fifties romance. The obligatory McCarthy hearing, with Ron Mathews playing the Roy Cohn character, Ray Verrine (among half a dozen other roles he succeeds in shouldering), carries the play to its swift and clean resolution.
Mr. Day also does an efficient job of directing here, making excellent use of a pair of twin turntables that allow a Fifties take on his cinematic staging. His set designer, Ray Recht, also does a commendable job of hitting the right shapes and hues of the period. But while costume designer Gail Brassard does well by the two women, and all right by Saul, the rest of the men are all wrong, looking far more like last week's Banana Republic ads than anything reminiscent of the Fifties. It's a flaw that's sufficiently discombobulating to make one realize the crucial importance of the often-ignored costume craft.
There are some fine actors among the cast, but Ms. Hoffman's performance as Jerry Albrecht rises above all the rest. Both in appearance and comic timing, she's evocative of the best women of that time, Thelma Ritter, Eve Arden and so on. Mal Lawrence, a Borscht Belt comedian in his own right, is also a finely-tuned throwback, even though he isn't given very much to do. Although she's directed a bit over the top for my taste, Carrie Preston has what it takes as Sally. Midway through the first act, she has a scene involving a Hammond Organ that's a masterpiece.
John Littlefield is a last minute replacement as Guy here, and he performs adequately if not especially memorably. Adam Greer is quite endearing as Rick, although his casting produces a little bit less of an edge than would have been ideal. Stevie Ray Dallimore, a very good actor when I have seen him elsewhere, misses the mark almost entirely with Freddie, Guy's pot smoking foil.
There are other minor quibbles here: a reference to an Italian oceanfront villa (what ocean is that, Mr. Day?), as an example. But that matters little. Like the spate of movies we get this time of year, this summer arrival onstage may be just the diversion we need from the heat. And the air conditioning seems to work just fine.