Less bang for the buck

Pegasus' comedy relies too heavily on camp to deliver its punch

The other night at Pegasus Theatre, I waited for a kiss that I hoped would move the earth beneath my feet, even though I knew I wasn't going to be the recipient.

When that kiss finally did come, it was, as expected, a curious sight--many gay men would never admit this, but it's almost as strange for us to watch two guys exchanging a tender smooch as it is for heterosexuals to watch this same kind of intimacy. We just don't get to see it often enough. Only in the last five years or so have gay scriptwriters put down the placards and picked up the champagne flutes of romantic comedy to tickle our noses. Those tiny bubbles will, hopefully, begin to fill the huge void of same-sex affection representations in pop culture.

So maybe the lips of actors Nye Cooper and Jim Hines, the leads in playwright Steve Lovett's world-premiere comedy Unrequited Love's a Bore, were weighed down with my great expectations, my yearning for a missed lifetime of movie amour. But I also think, in the chemistry lab of this slick-looking production about mismatched lovers, that the proper substances weren't mixed to achieve the bang that Lovett, director-designer Bruce Coleman, and the audience so clearly wanted. There was laughter, to be sure--at its best, Lovett's telegraph-quick patter isn't just funny, it's witty, an evolved humor that wrings chortles from a combination of the absurdity of what's observed and the sophisticated way it's observed. The succession of parries, ripostes, and rejoinders sometimes achieves a galloping momentum, to the point where you can almost hear the clack-clack-clack of the blades striking each other. Thank God nobody threw popcorn whenever an actor cracked wise; a preview of the show printed in the Dallas Observer mistakenly credited this as a Pocket Sandwich Theatre production.

But this version of Unrequited Love's a Bore just isn't sexy, a spontaneous quality that can be faked but never achieved through effort. It's not even especially convincing. Once again, it's that chemistry thing, and lead performers Cooper and Hines don't have it together. Cooper plays Scott Baldwin, a gruff-voiced former pro tennis player who describes himself as "quietly" gay. He enters the life of Jim Murphy (Hines), a neurotic romance novelist who loves Edith Piaf and whiles away his hours harping on how he wishes his life would be. His mother (Robyne Gulledge) would probably be more accurately described as a fairy godmother, invading and conducting a series of fantasy men (Donald Fowler, Jim Hopkins) through his life. But Baldwin is the real deal, and we know these two are fated to bump gums in a happily-ever-after scenario.

Although Nye Cooper has performed in theaters all over town, this is the first time I've seen him give a full-length performance rather than a character cameo. He's every bit as marvelous in large doses. In Reefer Madness and the Charles Busch plays he performed previously at Pegasus, he had to go for easy laughs because he had a short time to create a character and make an impression on audiences. He did it skillfully. In his co-starring role here, he thankfully paces himself and gives a cohesive performance that sneaks up on you with its originality and briskness. He totally immerses himself in his Oscar Madison voice, his jock stride, and the scowling façade that breaks, against his best efforts, into embarrassed concessions of tender feelings when he can no longer avoid them. Cooper invites you to watch him closely; there's meaning in every gesture he makes.

Jim Hines as Jim Murphy is more problematic--partly because of the role, partly because of the actor. Murphy is the narrator of this play, and the production is festooned with his daydreams, but I've met this guy many, many, many times before, onscreen, onstage, and at parties. Gay men, of course, are world-famous for having developed style, charm, wit, blah blah blah, to compensate for having been shut out of so many institutions. Hines projects a nice vulnerability at times, but he's overwhelmed by the reflexive "gay" characteristics of this role. Granted, a cliche is a cliche usually because there is some germ of truth to it, but I'd like to diversify the palette, mix the big, bright primary colors up a little to see what new shades we can come up with.

Lovett used warm, splashy, subtle hues to create Scott Baldwin. Indeed, I wish Baldwin had narrated, because he's the playwright Lovett's more startlingly original creation--a guy who refuses to surrender himself to the subculture's gay identity, yet can never give full disclosure and be accepted in the cartoon-macho sports world. What's it like living in the lonely stretch between those worlds? How does a butch guy deal with his not-so-butch feelings for other guys? A comedy featuring these two extremes at war inside this man would be a thrilling safari into unknown places.

Instead, we get Jim Murphy lip-syncing to Judy Garland's The Man That Got Away. Hey, great song, great singer--but there are other selections on the gay jukebox. And although Hines as Jim Murphy is an appealing fellow and earns some big laughs, he goes for a goofier, more self-conscious comic style. He tends to wear this performance like a Mardi Gras mask, making exaggerated expressions to underscore that what he's saying is really funny, isn't it? I think Steve Lovett's best lines deserve a subtler delivery. Not only that, but since Jim Murphy's daydreaminess and his wittiness are supposed to be defenses for insecurity and emotional fragility, even the slightest hint of self-satisfaction is poisonous for this role. Maybe this self-awareness is what blocked any sense that Jim has actually fallen for Scott. He seems much more smitten with his imaginary seducers (which is part of the point), but Hines never seems to pull out of this gauzy universe and take notice of Cooper. There's no epiphany, no moment of connection.

Director Bruce Coleman may have made a mistake pitching this play so broadly, with various characters turning to deliver their punch lines directly to the audience, their faces frozen in mock reaction shots. It sometimes seems to disrupt the flow of Lovett's banter and generally gives you the impression that these actors are working a little too hard to delight you. In my mind's ear, Lovett's language sounds less Neil Simon and more Noël Coward; it should be finessed, tossed off without the characters' intention to make it a laugh riot, but with the performers' skills to do so. There are moments throughout Unrequited Love's a Bore that are genuinely delightful, that remind you just how revolutionary this warhorse material is when trotted into the same-sex arena. You also can't help but feel that Coleman and Lovett drop the (screw)ball too many times by encouraging these actors (with the notable exception of Nye Cooper) to wrap their performances in the gaudy rags of camp.

Unrequited Love's a Bore runs through June 5. Call (214) 821-6005.

Banter
We seem to be in the midst of a harmonic convergence of Dallas or Dallas-related playwrights with full-scale world-premiere productions of their work right here at home. From the aforementioned Steve Lovett to Undermain associate Cameron Cobb to the Bath House's recent Festival of Independent Theaters to Kitchen Dog's upcoming New Works Festival, new plays are sprouting like mushrooms after a rainstorm. Add to this fungoid torrent Christina Matthews' debut script Holiday Rules Are in Effect. It's the first of two one-acts being staged at the 11th Street Theatre Project, whose 1999 season features area playwrights. Her work is paired with Barbara Macchias' very dark sibling saga titled Red Sedum Creeper. 11th Street has chosen to label this coupling Southern Rituals: Two One-Act Plays.

Matthews was born in Louisiana, but grew up in this state with relatives across the Panhandle and West Texas. Holiday Rules Are in Effect is her script, written over the last year, about a "Northicized" daughter returning to her family after a long absence for that most sacred and hypocritical American ritual: the holiday meal. She discovers that, suddenly, no one is familiar with the others and that all territory is fresh and fraught. Matthews, who lives in New York with her husband, admits there is some autobiography here.

"There's this transplanted Texan community in New York City, a total expatriate community," she says, laughing. "It seems most of us are from SMU or the University of Dallas. Whenever Lincoln Center hosts a Brave Combo performance, every Texan from the tri-state area gathers; you can tell the way we applaud and yell. When I first went back to Texas, it was weird, and then when I came back to New York, it was also weird. I started thinking about family, relatives, and how everyone's in therapy, but that's silly because no one's more screwed up than anyone else."

Matthews says that Holiday Rules Are in Effect deliberately tries to avoid Southern Gothic ("nobody's insane and living in a crumbling New Orleans mansion in this play") and instead shoots for a subtler form of conflict: "This is not a hick family; most of them went to college. But they're also a Southern churchgoing family, and [the returning daughter] lives in a house with her boyfriend, unmarried. It's not so much a moral objection, it's that this goes against their traditions, against what they expect family is supposed to be."

Matthews explains that everyone expected her to go the black, bleak comedy route ("because of my personality"), but she surprised even herself by writing a flat-out comedy. It's punched with moments that are not comic, but, she says, "mostly, I went with the way the characters began to behave, and it turned out light-hearted. Nobody seriously damages each other in this play. But they all have their peculiarities. I just wanted to say: 'Instead of shipping all of them out to therapy, we should modify our idea of normal and allow for a little strangeness.'"

Southern Rituals: Two One-Act Plays runs May 13 through May 29. Call (214) 522-

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