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Gay is great

Can I compose a critical mash note to Dallas actor Terry Martin, star of the Texas premiere of Dan Butler's The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me, that doesn't sound foolish? Probably not, but any such effort would contain some sentiment like: It's hard as hell to make a living as an actor in Dallas, I know. So if times get tough, you and your wife can move in with me. Don't be concerned that my one room in Deep Ellum gets crowded with just myself and a cat. I'll be happy to take the tile floor every night if you'll just continue being a stage actor in Dallas and offering local theatergoers a reason to get excited when they see your name on a program.

Having seen Martin give 14 performances over the last two years--a pugnacious, ambitious homophobe in Stage West's production of Lips Together, Teeth Apart; a quietly angry cuckold in New Theatre Company's Sight Unseen; and 12 utterly different males in his current run of The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me at the Swiss Avenue Theater--I can attest that his talents are exciting. His performance in Dan Butler's series of gay Polaroid glimpses takes glittering advantage of a gilded invitation to tour-de-force; the 15 vignettes about gay male life in the '90s are loaded with shock, titillation, bitterness, self-pity, wisdom, gooey pride, and a multitude of regional American accents. They are, in other words, an all-expenses-paid ego trip for an actor with strong skills in mimicry and a wide streak of narcissism. I can imagine Kevin Kline, a ham-fisted, stage-bred straight actor who recently won acclaim playing a gay on film, pouring his damn fool heart out on the stage until the shoes of front-row ticket-holders were soaked with blood.

Terry Martin, a man with extensive national stage and TV credits, can alternate between a Bah-stuhn whine and a Suhthun drawl without missing a vowel. He can flutter his hands with flaming flamboyance or jab the air with one thumb in regular-guy affirmation, and both gestures seem as natural to his body as taking breaths. Technically, he contains multitudes, to misquote Walt Whitman. But his remarkable shifts of voice, attitude, and expression aren't just thespian braggadocio. They're in service to brief, not always flattering reflections of gay men. "ACT-UP" cleanly skewers AIDS activism as narcissistic diversion, revealing a racist gay man whose demonstration chants become more half-hearted as his resentment toward those other groups who stole "our disease" grows.

Truthfully, Martin is sometimes better than the material through which he connects to us. At its most superficial, The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me careens from choir-preaching invocations of gay male pride to thumbnail sketches--crude outlines, really--of half-digested homo collective consciousness. Several of the 15 monologues here could be improved with a couple more rewrites. But what Dan Butler's confrontational script lacks in polish, it compensates for with a dogged pursuit of the secret thought, the hidden emotion: The writer may or may not develop into a great playwright, but he has a great actor's instinct for locating those sentiments that are embedded in memory. Because he is unafraid to remind us during three monologues that children are sexual beings too--sometimes, specifically, homosexual beings--he anchors all the adult ramblings in fertile emotional soil.

In "The Dancer," a gay man raises goose bumps on the arm of every romantic in the audience with his recollection of how, as an 8-year-old actor in a community-theater production, he developed a crush on an adult dancer who performed in a nearby production of West Side Story. When the older guy lets the kid feel a flexed muscle in his arm during rehearsal, it summons the kind of innocent early yearnings gay men will rarely discuss in their most relaxed moments together. In "Tommy Bastress," a fifth-grader confesses how a wrestling match with a friend turns intense and inexplicably pleasurable until suddenly, he admits with some shame and confusion, "I smell bleach."

A critic can dress Terry Martin's revelatory readings here in all manner of jewel-crusted verbiage, but the biggest compliment to this actor's skills might be the simplest: I frequently forgot he was acting. Whether hunched over in wire-framed glasses, lips pursed disapprovingly, wondering if all homosexuals really are "sexually adolescent, depraved" or strutting around, street-smart, with a copy of the King James Bible, blithely defusing the 30-centuries-old Leviticus passage and other bits of God-justified nonsense, Terry Martin often seemed to be improvising, pulling this stuff with furious inspiration off the top of his head. Or rather, Terry Martin didn't seem to be improvising; the dozen men he portrayed did. And this achieved the near impossible, reviving some fairly hoary civil rights rhetoric with fire and music. He also reminded us how quickly, if given the opportunity, the oppressed can turn into the oppressor.

The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me is a wrapped and bowed present to the gay male community in Dallas from Terry Martin and Plano Repertory Theatre, which produced the show. I hope all gay men who read this will hightail it to the Swiss Avenue Theatre and receive this glittering gift with the graciousness it deserves--even those who have been saturated with the "gay is good" party line that becomes more tedious the more you believe it. Trust me, the last thing Dan Butler wants to do with his wrenching anecdotal shifts is coddle you. He respects the intelligence of his gay brethren enough to risk pissing them off.

All that said, it would be a shame if adventurous straight theatergoers stayed away from The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me because they thought it wasn't for them. In some ways, heterosexuals need this stuff more than homosexuals, who live it every day, after all. Wherever you are on the spectrum of straight attitudes toward gays--fire-breathing ally or staunchly tolerant or still secretly wondering if boys kissing boys really isn't the result of some genetic misfire--Dan Butler and Terry Martin don't beat you over the head with how they think you should feel. They present, instead, a spicy, sometimes bitter-tasting buffet of conflicting voices from the gay community--one of whom vociferously and not unreasonably denies there even is such a thing as a gay community. Whether or not it exists, the omnipresence of gay love and lust in human history is plain fact. And it ain't going anywhere, no matter how often our "moral" leaders sucker punch straights and gays alike with that crazy little thing called Leviticus.

And did I mention that Terry Martin is an amazing actor? You could be the biggest homophobe on the planet, and still marvel at the way this man jumps in and out of skins like Superman enters and exits phone booths. His kind of relaxed, radiant prowess is a reason for everyone to get excited about theater in Dallas. We're all supposed to be flattered that Rent and Cirque du Soleil deign to visit our humble prairies, but one locally based man who can create a quarrelsome, recognizable crowd with one face and one voice is a much more thrilling spectacle.

The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me runs through March 22. Call (972) 422-7460.

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Jimmy Fowler

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