The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me has been described as everything from a "whirlwind tour of the gay American landscape" to "a travelogue though the many faces of the male homosexual community." Mostly, though, Dan Butler (Frasier's famously offensive Bulldog character) has penned a sort of primer to gay life in America in his 1995 Drama Desk Award nominee. The surprisingly simple script features 14 characters who cover the bases of gay life, from self-acceptance to coming out to falling in love. All done in monologues by one actor, the stories here might seem a bit worn to 2003 audiences. None of this is particularly new information anymore. But Butler's group of odd fellows remains amusing for the most part. And Joe Watts's earnest production in his new performance space, Theatre New West Too, is compelling.
Especially strong are the more complex monologues. As the play runs just under two hours, Butler has time to develop only a few of the characters who make up this world. New West actor Steve Bullitt, who reveals surprising theatrical dexterity here, seems most comfortable when he gets the time on stage to settle into the story. Without question, the richest story comes from "Leslie," a "Chattanooga boy" who ends up in L.A. as an out-of-work actor who can't even get enough temp jobs to support himself. He ends up delivering food to PWAs (persons with AIDS). In a happily un-PC reference, Leslie calls the shut-in who languishes in his dirty diaper "Gandhi on Slim-Fast." When Leslie finds himself falling for the ill man, the story shifts a bit, becoming wonderfully delicate and tender, despite the Southern man's irreverent jokes, and we get a glimpse into how the healthy can fall in love with the ill -- a story that transcends issues of sexuality.
Butler is often at his best when he verbally flagellates the gay community for some of its worst social offenders. One of the funniest characters is the hateful ACT-UP activist who wants to claim AIDS as the private property of gay men. "It's our disease," he whines, snarling that "the blacks, the dykes, the straights, the socialites and the druggies" should all just go away. With hysterically childish irony he says, "Before they got it, we had it."
Even more complex are a trio of "critic" characters, who appear in brief moments to offer up cynical commentary on the gay rights movement. The first critic calls activists a bunch of "fringe individuals" who show up at the White House wearing leather chaps, of all things. He detests being "represented" by such folks and says he prefers being in the closet because "it's exciting knowing something" that the rest of the world doesn't. The second critic rails against the rainbow flag and the AIDS quilt as gay symbols, calling them weak and making the strangely salient argument that a quilt makes us think about "a bunch of women sitting around sewing" and is not an adequate symbol for a good fight. And the final critic says darkly that gays "always were and always will be damaged goods." That these critics come off as oddly observant, even scarily correct, at weird moments makes their hateful commentary only that much more powerful. It is this ability to get at the more complex and paradoxical issues of gay life that is the strength of Butler's show.
Less successful are the silly characters who get so little time on stage that they come off as cardboard cutouts rather than fully wrought individuals. In the scene titled "Questions," a sexy young man gets up from the bed he's sharing with a lover to exclaim over his surprising good luck at being able to find such a stud. "He's a gymnast -- could you die!" he squeals. He then lists off a litany of stereotypical questions about whether to continue the relationship. And the show opens with "Jimmy," the only straight guy in the story. He learns his best friend is gay in a conversation as he's cruising a barroom for women. Surprised, Jimmy takes the information fairly well. His only comment is "You look like a guy who should like women." This is old stuff, but it's done well enough to remain amusing despite the familiar ground.
Technically, Watts's production involves little more than a platform in front of a handful of folding chairs. At moments, Watts sends Bullitt into the audience, but it might be better if he remained on the tiny stage. The theater is small enough to create a nice intimacy without pushing the actor into the audience's lap.
After almost a decade, Butler's script (which has attracted such notable performers as Greg Louganis) has some frayed edges, but the essential stories remain strong and viable commentaries on life and love, both gay and straight.
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