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03 May 2014

History on the Stage: Desert Rose Amazes With Its Production of 'The Haunted Host,' One of the First Gay Plays

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Jim Strait and John Ferrare in The Haunted Host. Jim Strait and John Ferrare in The Haunted Host.

Regional theater companies don’t often have historic events taking place on their stages, but our comfy, 85-seat Desert Rose Playhouse in Rancho Mirage is now mounting a 50th-anniversary production of a play that holds an important place in American theater’s history.

Robert Patrick, the author of The Haunted Host, was there on opening night to watch the new production of what’s considered one of the first contemporary gay plays. “I never dreamed I’d be seeing this play 50 years later,” he confided to me.

The whole thing happened as a result of having a venue at which to perform such works: the now-famous Caffe Cino. Back in the ’60s, Joe Cino opened the place so playwrights and actors could create productions that offered the polar opposite of Broadway’s razzmatazz.

“We didn’t know we were pioneers,” said Patrick. “But four Pulitzer Prize winners (and finalists) came from the Cino. John Guare, who wrote Six Degrees of Separation, was the first. Lanford Wilson, author of Talley’s Folly; William Hoffman, who wrote As Is, and who co-starred as Frank in the first Haunted Host; and Tom Eyen, who went on to create Dreamgirls—all got their start at Caffe Cino, along with the writers of Hair and Dames at Sea, and names like Al Pacino and Sam Shepard.”

This is where LGBT theater got its very start. Joe Cino’s thought-provoking motto was, “Do what you have to do.” And so in 1964, Lanford Wilson’s play The Madness of Lady Bright was the first ever gay play to hit the boards.

“We called him ‘The Mozart from Missouri,’” reminisced Patrick.

I inquired as to the critics’ response to the show. “They were completely overwhelmed by the brilliance of the writing—to the point that the subject simply didn’t matter. It wasn’t even mentioned in the reviews! All they could think about was the writing.”

So when The Haunted Host came along later that year, the road to success for LGBT theater had already begun to be paved.

Of course it takes place in the ’60s, in New York’s Greenwich Village. “The stage was so small,” remembered Patrick, “I was about a foot away from the audience.”

At the Desert Rose, the open stage that greets playgoers is instantly recognizable as one of those tiny apartments stuffed with comfortable clutter (mine was on Jarvis Street in Toronto), and includes set-designer Steve Fisher’s great touches, like a bookcase made with bricks and boards, which back then was mandatory decor. The bright colors, the plush cushions, the souvenirs and the overfilled closet (with drag items, never referred to—a wealth of boas, spangles and furs) are all flawlessly illuminated by lighting designer Phil Murphy. Costume designer Mark Demry continues the decade’s theme: It’s an instant trip down Memory Lane for those fortunate enough to have been there.

From a theatrical point of view, however, all of this creates a challenge: There just isn’t much room left in which to move. Under the always-deft direction of Wendy Cohen, however, the two actors maneuver cleverly in the limited space.

The three scenes are separated by live music. The play opens with a folksinger (so prevalent in those days; this one even sports a loud tie-dye T-shirt), soprano Lin Gillham, on guitar. She is also the production’s stage manager, and what a job that must be. The other two entr’actes use stubble-bearded (not the fashion back then!) musician/vocalist Miguel Arballo (whose diction could use a wakeup call), also on a six-string. Oddly enough, the songs have absolutely nothing to do with the action, plot, mood or characters of the play, and except for establishing the time period, they add nothing. But, then, it was the ’60s, when everything was puzzling.

From the moment the play begins, when Jim Strait bursts onto the stage, you can’t take your eyes off him. He played this part in the ’80s in San Diego, but even that doesn’t explain his magisterial command of the role of Jay. It is rare to see an actor so enmeshed with his character that you can actually see a thought dawn in his eyes. We can only hope that every actor in town will rush to see this play, to learn from a master like Strait. Of course, the wittiness of the dialogue and the opportunity to toss around such wonderfully funny lines helps. The script is peppered with one-liners and smart-mouth comments; you’d swear that Strait just made them up. Wait until you see him do his breathtaking monologues and make those stunning quips. The sole problem in this brilliant performance is, to be honest, his hair: The bangs are so long that they keep flopping into his eyes, and although Jay sometimes tosses his hair to great effect, Jim Strait sometimes unconsciously wipes his curls back. It’s like an actor unaware of his hands constantly fussing with an itchy nose. It’s great hair—maybe a simple trim of the bangs could cure this?

Jay is a writer. And one of his friends sends him a wannabe writer, new in town from Iowa: Frank, played by former ballet-dancer John Ferrare. The gorgeous Frank has never encountered an actual gay person before. And so it begins. Ferrare, beautifully playing a straight man (in both senses of the word) to Strait’s comic character, has to work indescribably hard to provide the setups and to control the timing of the lines—some delivered so rapid-fire as to make an Uzi envious. Frank needs a place to stay (didn’t we all back then), so the recently bereaved Jay provides his pull-out couch. Frank has an agenda: He wants help with his writing, so he hopes to use Jay’s experience and skills to improve a play he has already written and brought along. Ferrare hits just the right note with his seriousness, and then he shocks us (all too rarely) with one of his light-up-the-world smiles.

I asked Patrick what has changed with his play in its 50 years. “The attitudes of the period,” he replied. “It puts me through the meat grinder to see the play now. … Nobody today could be as ignorant as Frank was then about gays. People ask me if I am the real Jay. Actually, Jay was Joe Cino! And Frank is all of us writers. That’s why I combine the comedy with the drama, like Shakespeare. The play is really about relationships, about codependency—and that, unfortunately, never seems to change.

“I set out to give the audience absolutely every bit of entertainment I could give them.”

And does he ever. Run, don’t walk, to see The Haunted Host.

The Haunted Host is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, June 1, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $25 to $28. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

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