Paul J. Williams' Luby's-based Comedy Tops Uptown Players' Gay Pride Arts Fest
"Welcome to Luby's. Salad fer you?" drawls actor Paul J. Williams, playing one of a cafeteria full of characters in his gently tossed solo comedy Dishing It Out. Williams' show is at the top of the menu for Uptown Players' annual smorgasbord of short plays for the two-weekend Pride Performing Arts Festival at Kalita Humphreys Theater.
Working on a bare stage in the upstairs Frank's Place space, Williams' one-act serves up a slice of life (and imaginary icebox pie) in a Luby's somewhere in East Texas. Playing all the employees and some customers who've tumbled off a tour bus after a morning looking at blooming dogwoods, Williams performs a different voice and specific gestures — a pat on the hair net of the salad lady, a pursing of lips for the righteous Bible study leader — for each persona.
He's brilliant at this, like a one-man Greater Tuna, skillfully slipping in and out of characters, accents and attitudes familiar to Texans. His little comic tuna casserole comes with a side of cultural commentary, too. As "Sister Helen Holy," the deep-fried and sanctified "Bab-a-tist" lady holding her prayer meeting in Luby's back room, Williams brings some of that old-time religion directly to the audience, but just for grits and giggles.
"What's your church background?" Williams-as-Helen asked a female couple during the opening matinee performance. "We used to be Catholic," said one. Quipped Williams, "And now you're lesbaterian?"
A veteran of cruise ship entertainment, Williams works a crowd like a master, or mistress when he's in the guise of the prissy Helen Holy. "Jesus wore sandals," Helen snapped to one young bohemian on the front row. "You need to dress up."
As "Quintessa," observer of human behavior and server of meats, Williams sums up the cafeteria experience succinctly: "Don't be comin' to Luby's if you ain't prepared to make some decisions." Amen, sister, and push that tray along. (Dishing It Out is performed again at 8 p.m. on September 11 and 2 p.m. Saturday.)
Made in Heaven, also part of the Uptown Pride Fest, is a silly-trashy three-legged farce about conjoined twins who share six major organs, including a giant penis. It's a disjointed 65-minute playlet, more of a comedy sketch really, written by Jay Bernzweig, directed by Kevin Moore.
The pleasant surprise is how well the performances by Uptown Players' cast improve on the one-joke premise. The four actors provide lots of hearty har-hars, beginning with the sight gag of lookalike actors (Michael Moore and Philip Andrew) clomping around in one enormous pair of dungarees.
Brother Max (Andrew) has decided to propose to the girl of his dreams, Jessica (cute-as-a-shiny-little-button Arianna Movassagh). Not so fast, says brother Benjie (Moore). Benjie's gay and his idea of honeymoon bliss is bedding Ryan Gosling, or perhaps a rent boy named Gilbert (Sergio Antonio Garcia, wearing jeans so tight you can tell his religion).
Long set-up short, Gilbert turns up at the guys' apartment and turns out to be Jack, Jessica's first husband. He's sexually ambiguous, going gay-for-pay but still carrying a torch for his ex-wife. He moves in with the brothers and Jessica, blurring lines of gender identity in every direction.
Best bits come from the quick timing in arguments between the twins (Moore's better at this, with Andrew dodgy on lines on opening night). "I was afraid," Benjie says to Max about coming out as gay. "Of what?" says Max. "That I'd move out?"
Frustrated Jessica attempts suicide by brownies and by the end the brothers decide that sharing a wife and a lover is no way to share a penis. As a lightweight allegory about elastic sexuality, Made in Heaven stretches its point. As a piece of legit theater, however, it barely has a leg to stand on. (They do this one again at 6:45 p.m. Saturday.)
Uptown's audience loves a hammy act like Amy Armstrong and Freddy Allen, the semi-raunchy comedy-cabaret duo who opened this year's Pride Arts Festival with a one-night-only performance September 5 on the big stage at Kalita Humphreys Theater. He plays keyboard. She sings showtunes and pop standards, and carries on extended banter with the crowd — and at Uptown that means 200 middle-aged gay men, a handful of lesbians and one straight critic.
When Armstrong sings, she's Adele with some years on her, doing husky versions of "Everybody's Girl" from the musical Steel Pier and "Heaven Is a Place on Earth," the old Belinda Carlisle pop tune reworked as a soulful ballad. When Armstrong talks, she comes off as a young Sophie Tucker, jesting about her weight and her lousy sex life. "What's my favorite sexual position? Comfortable."
At the Uptown show, Armstrong talked more than she sang in the 90-minute set and she got giddily blitzed on cosmos carried onstage as a running joke by the lobby bartender. Those must have been strong cocktails. She forgot the lyrics to her closing number and had to be prompted by the ever-patient Freddy.
Like Williams, this pair performs regularly on gay cruises. Onboard a ship, you'd have barely noticed how much Armstrong, laden with pink drinkies, was listing to the port side.
Other shows at the Uptown Pride Fest: Robert Aguirre-Sacasa's Good Boys and True, one-act set in a prep school for boys (7:45 p.m. Thursday and 4 p.m. Saturday); Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche, five-woman comedy set in the 1950s by Evan Linder and Andrew Hopgood, starring Andi Allen and Marisa Diotalevi (8:30 p.m. Saturday); and The Timekeepers, drama by Jay Bernzweig about a gay man and an elderly one imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp (8 p.m. Friday).
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