Flapping and honking like geese in a yard, the six female characters in Steel Magnolias are exaggerated versions of pushy Southern women as seen through the eyes of a gay man, playwright Robert Harling. For Love! Valour! Compassion!, gay playwright Terrence McNally gathers eight stereotypes of artsy, East Coast-y homosexual males and throws them together like so many fairies at the bottom of the garden.
Here are two plays with a lot in common and productions on local stages that share some of the same strengths and weaknesses. Magnolias has just opened at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas. Love! Valour! Compassion! has added extra performances to its four-week run because of sell-outs of the Uptown Players' shows at the Trinity River Arts Center.
There is something to like about both productions, namely a good performance by an actor or two in each cast. But there is much to dislike, starting with the plays themselves. These are not great American classics of the stage. Magnolias should have been plowed under the back 40 after that weepy 1989 film starring Julia, Sally, Olympia, Shirley, Dolly and Daryl. Love! Valour! arrived in the mid-'90s but reflects attitudes and AIDS fears of a decade earlier. It creaks with references to Glenda Jackson and Nancy Reagan, and its faux-heroic characters now seem shallow and unimportant. The 1997 movie version only amplified what were already huge problems with McNally's script. Without Nathan Lane mincing through the role of Buzz, which McNally had written for him, it was a box-office dud. Lane wisely opted to star in the even gayer but far more successful comedy The Birdcage instead.
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As playwrights, Harling and McNally are birds of a feather, experts at lining up the cheap, easy laugh. Instead of creating character- or story-driven dialogue, they cut and paste old jokes, pop-culture references and homespun maxims and try to pass them off as bon mots. "Smile--it increases your face value," says Magnolias' beauty shop owner Truvy (Tippy Hunter), whose lines sound like bumper stickers. And this from Ramon (Casey Robinson), the sexy boyfriend of an older lover in L!V!C!: "We don't love each other because we don't love ourselves."
Even the plots are similar. Both draw their same-sex characters to a single setting where they can spend hour after hour arguing, gossiping, teasing and eventually grieving for the death of one of their own. Harling's gals flit in and out of Truvy's cluttered beauty salon in small-town Louisiana. McNally's men alight in a quaint Victorian house on the edge of a lake in what could be the Berkshires. As locations go, it's hard to say which one is gayer.
With everyone present, the plays try their damnedest to make the audience fall in love with their eccentrics. At Truvy's, that starts with Truvy herself, local diva of the dye pot. She has a no-account husband and two wastrel sons whom she supports by doing hair out in the carport. Truvy's new assistant, shy, born-again Annelle (Nicole Case), has been abandoned by a man who's made off with her savings and her car. In this play, every man mentioned is a crook, a crackpot, a cheat, a liar or dead.
Magnolias' first act finds the beauty shop in a frizz over wedding prep for Shelby (Stephanie Young), a spoiled simp marrying a rich attorney. Shelby's control-freak mom, M'Lynn (Sue Loncar), battles over every detail of the ceremony, from Shelby's hairdo (Mom wants something more "Jaclyn Smith") to the number of bridesmaids (nine). Mom's best pals are Clairee (Ouida White), wealthy widow of the former mayor, and Ouiser (Sandra Looney), an even richer and crankier old bat who runs around in overalls and growls like a pit bull at anything hinting of happiness.
For more than two hours, the ladies yammer about "getting their colors done" (a supremely '80s obsession) and other fripperies. They delight in backstabbing everybody on the block. "She's so dumb she thinks Sherlock Holmes is a subdivision," says Ouiser.
Then somebody dies (offstage, thank God) and they all cry. Harling wants us to, too, but it doesn't happen at CTD. Director Cynthia Hestand has seen to that by casting an actress too old, too sour and too boring to play Shelby. Stephanie Young sets her thin lips in a tense pout and spouts Shelby's lines in a droning minor key, as though she'd given up on the character somewhere back in rehearsals. And Hestand does no better by M'Lynn, stationing Loncar awkwardly in a beauty shop chair for her big breakdown scene. That might have been her attempt to rein in Loncar's tendency to gesture like a traffic cop, but the actress still seems to be all over the set. Hard to watch.
Eyes turn for comfort to Nicole Case as the quivering Annelle. Case's extraordinarily good performance in what is supposed to be Magnolias' smallest role flips this production on its ear. We stop caring about idiotic Shelby early on and refocus all attention toward Annelle. She has the better story line anyway. What's happened to that no-good husband? Why has she gotten so jazzed over Jesus in the second act? And, by golly, doesn't she turn out to be the smartest and steeliest magnolia of them all?
Put the gay boys of Love! Valour! Compassion! on that beauty shop set at CTD and you'd hardly notice a difference. You'd think a gay playwright would be a mite more sensitive about stereotypes, particularly when it comes to the queer nation, but no, McNally goes right for jokes about Ethel Merman and Liberace.
If Magnolias ends up saying nothing at all, this play tries to say too many things at once. One minute it's about the ravages of AIDS, the next it shows its gay men bed-hopping and cheating on their mates without a second thought. It wants to be both sassy and sentimental, politically conscious and politically correct. And so it ends up in a muddle, reduced to depicting gay men as limp-wristed, emotionally wounded, promiscuous wisecrackers. Nothing valiant or compassionate about that.
The strongest character in Uptown's production, directed by Doug Miller, is Buzz (B.J. Cleveland doing his best Nathan Lane impression), who declares himself a "gay imp" and dresses like a tropical cocktail. But McNally also provides a narrator, John Jeckyll (Steve Iwanski), who wanders onstage alone to read to the audience from the purloined journal of his host, Gregory Mitchell (Scott Meek), a depressed choreographer with a stutter. Gregory's boyfriend is blind Bobby Brahms (Regan Adair, this production's one truly subtle actor), a sweet soul given monologues about God's unconditional love. When he's not smelling roses, he's secretly making out with John's meaty young boyfriend, Ramon.
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John's nicer, more queenly twin James (also played by Iwanski, giving both characters distinctly different personalities) shows up and falls in love with Buzz. Perry (Bryan T. Donovan) and Arthur (Mark Shum) are button-down business types who've lived as a couple for 12 years. They don't do much of anything.
On three all-boy weekends during one summer, the men visit the country house, where they argue, gossip, tease and do each other's hair. Oh, no, wait, that was back at Miss Truvy's.
They do go skinny-dipping, with the cast going for the full monty in full view of the audience as they pretend-swim in the invisible lake. Then somebody dies and we're supposed to cry.
At least the Magnolias keep their clothes on.