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Fri12152017

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A wall-to-wall audience surged into the Desert Rose Playhouse for the LGBT theater company’s summer show: David Dillon’s Party. The play was originally created in 1992 in response to the heavy hearts of that time, weighed down by the stigma of being gay, plus the fear and loss created by the AIDS epidemic.

When it opened in Chicago, producers anticipated a run of several weeks—but it ran for two years! Next, it went to New York—specifically, off-Broadway—where it flourished before going worldwide. And now, it’s onstage in Rancho Mirage.

The timing could not be better: Opening night came 12 days after the Orlando shooting. With our hearts still aching and our tears not yet dry after the horrors at Pulse, Party takes us to a carefree evening where seven gay friends congregate. Is there anything more healing than laughter? This show gives us belly laughs, chortles, whoops, cackles, hoo-haws and snickers. The capacity audience roared and applauded freely throughout, then rose to a standing ovation for the artistry of the cast and crew. You must not miss Party … because this is how we all heal.

The one-act, 105-minute play (no intermission) is set in the cramped Manhattan apartment of Kevin. As his guests arrive, the introductions teach us faces and names—which could be daunting if the clever casting didn’t honor the wildly diverse characters with whom we will spend the evening. All are single. Light conversation fills us in regarding professions and some backgrounds. Former relationships are touched upon. (All you really need to remember is that one of them … is a priest!)

The show is produced by Paul Taylor, and Jim Strait directs. If you think blocking seven characters isn’t a task, just watch the movement on this stage. But Strait has also carefully mined each role to bring out the personality differences, and the result is a study in psychology. Steve Fisher masterminds the technical world of sound and the cues of Phil Murphy’s incomparable lighting.

So let’s start the party. Kevin, the host, is a complex role brought to life by actor John Fryer. In his sleeveless shirt, Kevin weaves his story through the evening in scraps. We come to realize that he is still emotionally raw from the end of a very long-term relationship, though he never asks for pity from his friends … or from us.

Boldly dressed in black and red, his talky friend Ray is the priest, played by Kam Sisco. He grabs most of the laughs, including some uproarious ones about church life. Sisco’s bigger-than-life personality is ideal for portraying an older authority figure … but one who lives to let his hair down and “dish.”

Next is the arrival of Phillip, the creation of actor Jason Hull. This unforgettable young man with his lean body and sculptured face looks intense even while at rest. (Great profile!) His stage character seems to blend effortlessly with his real self, and his combination of laid-back and high energy is a fascinating mix.

Brian, played by Allan Jensen, is convincing as a type we know well: the skilled and talented individual whose life is the arts. Jensen romps through his demanding role with obvious pleasure—and what fun it is to see an actor relaxing into his role so completely … even when performing a strip tease.

Strip tease? Did I forget to mention the nudity? Well, take a look at the poster: Yes, these guys all eventually wind up in their pelts. I’ll explain later.

Miguel Arballo plays Peter, a beer-swiller whose personality blends the watchful and thoughtful with a tinge of the dangerous. He appears to be complete and self-satisfied—but then panics at the thought of taking off his clothes in front of a group of men, even if they’re friends.

James is marvelously played by Robbie Wayne. He swaggers in as the butchy, leather-vested, tattoed type. But then he smiles—and he lights up the stage and our hearts. That million-watt mega-grin transforms his handsome face over and over.

Jacob Betts portrays Andy, a youthful and nerdy newcomer whose role contains the greatest arc of all. We watch in astonishment as this young man sheds his shell as he peels off his clothes. As the evening progresses, he becomes another person, in a commanding and impressive performance.

Yes, the cast is filled with accomplished actors, and directed by Jim Strait, each produces a beautifully subtle and shaded portrayal of his character.

Here’s the idea of Party: The boys have gathered to spend an evening in a safe place where they can just be themselves. Someone brings along a game, a version of “Truth or Dare,” here called “Fact, Fiction or Fantasy.” So that’s how the clothes come off, as they win or lose at each turn, while we learn more about each one’s life. We gain insight as they describe an incident in their past or act out a challenge. It builds into an amazing and gleeful final scene which you will love.

You don’t have to be gay to enjoy this show (although it’d help; the script is sprinkled with underground vocabulary and references to preferences). The humor is universal, and that’s the most important takeaway. It’s a simple plot, and the show is devoid of any real action, which makes it perfect for this intimate stage.

It’s the laughter, that wonderful laughter with so many levels, which unites us all in the joy of life and the appreciation of our differences. This is an extraordinary show that offers a most important gift: Help for us all to heal.

Party is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, July 31, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30-$33, and the show runs one hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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.

Published in Theater and Dance