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A CurtainUp Review
Texas Homos

You're the straightest gay man there ever was .--- Delbert, to the tightly closeted, conventionally married doctor, who insists "I'm not gay. I just have a very strong libido."
 Reed Birney and  (front) Richard Bekins
Reid Birney and (front) Richard Bekins
(Photo: Kim T. Sharp)
Jan Buttram's Texas Homos, like Lee Blessing's Thief River is about a group of small town American men for whom sexual identity continues to pose a threat to their standing in the community. These men, whether they live in the Midwest or in the good ole boy land of East Texas, either leave town for cities where being gay is easier and more open -- or they opt for marriage, kids and respectability, with perhaps an occasional foray into anonymous sexual encounters in a nearby city with a more active gay life.

While Thief River was a sad, heart-tugger with a story that played out over many years and with an unusually structured plot, Texas Homos, despite its equally unsettling underpinnings, is an often rambunctiously farcical story with a straightforward arc that unpacks thirty years of secrets and lies in one day and on a single set. You might call it a morning after play, in which a catastrophic event forces those caught up in it to deal not just with the immediate crisis but the way they will live the rest of their lives.

The catastrophic event Ms. Buttram, who was herself raised in East Texas, has cooked up is a police raid on a public restroom which is the closest thing Tyler, Texas (population 80,000) comes to a place where the town's good 'ole but secretly gay boys can have anonymous sex. Of the three local men facing arraignment for activities in that restroom that can land them in jail according to the local penal code, two are about as respectable as you can get -- Cecil Ray Bonner (Reed Birney) is a prominent doctor and Jim Bob Mason (Richard Bekins) is a Methodist minister. Both are family men and have been friends since early childhood.

The third man caught in the sting, Delbert Simmons (Michael Busillo), is twenty-five (about twenty years' the other men's junior) and looks and acts like a teenager. Unlike the carefully closeted and emotionally guarded older men, Delbert is unmistakably gay, a somewhat carricaturish blend of stock gay boy and dumb yokel. He's remained in Tyler simply because he lacks the get-up and go to untie himself from his mama's apron strings or earn and save enough money to pursue the dreams that he isn't smart or talented enough to ever realize.

Add to this trio Cecil and Jim Bob's politically ambitious lawyer friend Harold D. Carney (the supply room of whose office serves serves as the setting) and his secretary and Cecil's erstwhile girl friend, Judy Kay Murphy (Karen Culp). Harold is ready to pull every trick to squash the scandal and avoid a trial and jail. Why? For one thing, like many Tyler citizens, he's beholden to the wealthy Cecil whose generosity always comes with IOUs attached; for another, his own life isn't so unblemished that a few revelations couldn't endanger his political future -- talk about a play living up to its title! As for Judy Kay's vindictive reaction to the news of Cecil's sexual preferences, they're a foretaste of how the town as a whole would respond if the damage already done weren't controlled.

While I was more moved by and sympathetic to the characters in Thief River, Buttram's faster-paced and more comic approach to the not so gay Gay life in a narrow-minded community is entertaining but less likely to leave quite as lasting an impression. It has some terrific dialogue going for it and under Melvin Bernhard's direction moves along with non-stop momentum. Best of all, the characters live and breathe in the hands of a commendable 5-member ensemble.

The two leads are especially good. I've seen Reed Birney do splendid work in a variety of roles, usually as a supporting player rather than as the linchpin. Now he's the central figure and he nails his character's self-assured nasty-niceness with its underlying self-hatred and terror, and leaves us with a devastating final image. Richard Bekins deftly brings out the humor and intense emotion in the minister who could easily come across as a maudlin, modern day version of Somerset Maughm's Rain.

Judging from this and Ms. Buttram's previous play with Abingdon, The Parker Family Circus (also set in Texas), I look forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

The Parker Family Circus
Thief River

Written by Jan Buttram
Directed by Melvin Bernhardt.
Cast: Richard Bekins, Reed Birney, Michael Busillo, Karen Culp, David Van Pelt.
Set Design: James F. Wolk
Costume Design: Susan Scherer
Lighting Design: Matthew McCarthy
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
Dramaturg: Julie Hegner

Running time: 2 hours with intermission.
June Havoc Theatre, Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, 312 W. 36th Street, first floor 212-868-4444.
From 1/28/05 to 2/27/05 -- extended to 3/13/05; opening 2/02/05.
Tuesday hrough Saturday evenings at 7:30 PM; Matinees are Saturday at 2:00 PM and Sunday at 3:00 PM. Tickets: $25.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on January 31st press preview
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