Between Rock and hard place

Straight Jacket

By Richard Day
Directed by Robert Kreis
Thirteenth Street Repertory Company
50 West 13th Street (675-0077)
Non-union production (closes Oct. 12)
Review by Doug DeVita

What is it about Rock Hudson's story that refuses to allow the man to rest in peace? Hasn't everything that could possibly be mined from the secrets of his very public life been exhausted years ago? Is there any new twist on his life, or on living in Hollywood in the '50s, that can still be exploited in the name of scintillating entertainment? According to three-time Emmy nominee Richard Day there is, but whatever potential he sees isn't readily apparent in his thinly veiled fairy-tale Straight Jacket.

Guy Stone, the play's stand-in for Hudson, is the type of he-man movie star that women swoon over and men are comfortable with, the biggest box-office draw for his studio. Of course, his promiscuous homosexuality must be kept closeted, so for publicity purposes he is married off to a bubble-headed secretary. The problem is that his "wife" has not been let in on his secret, and Guy, used to getting his way in all things, sees no reason to change his lifestyle. When he falls in love with the screenwriter of his latest film, an angry young novelist with a social conscience and a yen for gay domesticity, the plot thickens like a box of pre-fab tapioca pudding, boiling over until all ends happily in one of the most ridiculously spurious denouements in recent memory.

The problem with Day's script is not its subject matter, no matter how familiar. There is a lot of stuff to be exploited in the story of a town skittish from the McCarthy witch-hunts that decimated the creative forces that provided the dreams that fueled its very existence. What doesn't work is that Straight Jacket, for all its political and humanitarian posturing, is never stinging enough to be a social satire, is never angry enough to be riveting drama, and is never funny enough to be an out-and-out comedy. It wears its politically correct gayness on its sleeve, and its pleas for the right to pursue personal happiness ring false, for both today and especially for the period in which it is set. Emmy nominations notwithstanding, Day's script betrays his sit-com roots. There are several well-aimed and very funny zingers peppered throughout, timed for commercial breaks that don't come to relieve the otherwise standard T.V.-movie-like fare.

A lot of the flaws could have been hidden by a snappy, fast-paced production that captured the glittering glamour of the Hollywood milieu, but alas, Robert Kreis provided sluggish direction that made no attempt to capitalize on either the comic or noir potential of the material. Scene after scene fell flat from deadly earnestness, and nobody was helped by the dreadfully substandard physical production. For a play that should be all about style, precious little was in evidence. Ratty old furniture could not evoke the glamorous interiors called for, the costumes were likewise drab and uninspired renditions of 1950s chic, and the lighting was flat and dark. (Set and costumes uncredited; lighting by Gavin Smith.) The one aspect that did work was the terrific period music that was used to cover the otherwise endless changes of furniture during blackouts between scenes.

As Guy Stone, Peter Stewart was an affable presence, but his All-American good looks were no substitute for the raw sexual magnetism the role cries out for. Gyda Arber was voluptuously dizzy as his "wife" Sally, although her constant shrieking in the second act grew quickly wearing. Brianna Hansen played Stone's agent with a curious mix of energetic bravado and self-conscious humility, flinging out her one-liners with just a little too much force; Jason Godbey made the most of his cardboard character as the easily flummoxed, sexually frustrated studio head (he deservedly got the biggest laugh of the evening with a wry, matter-of-fact reference to his unseen wife Bernice. The line itself wasn't particularly funny, but Godbey's take on it was); and Michael Shen was terribly fey in a variety of small roles. (A scene with the Asian Shen as a German-accented psychotherapist was a ludicrous example of the evil excesses of color-blind casting.) The strongest performance came from Adam Raynen as Rick Foster, the screenwriter with whom Guy seeks to share his life. Raynen had a natural, dignified presence that gave his one-dimensional role as many sides as possible, thus providing the only truly believable performance of the evening.

The fascination with the very private lives of very public figures is an obsession that will never fail to spark the imaginations of writers of all kinds, no matter how many times the subject matter has been explored. But without a firm point of view or an original twist, Day's take on Hudson's story, despite some juicy, if hollow, name-dropping and cattiness about old Hollywood stars, held very little interest for any one gay or straight, particularly if they are not in the industry, interested in such things in general, or are under the age of 40.

Box Score:

Writing: 0
Directing: 0
Acting: 1
Sets: 0
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 0

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Copyright 2002 Doug DeVita