No Punchin Judy
The Stonewall riots, three days of uprisings in 1969 that helped launch the gay rights revolution, began hours after the funeral of Judy Garland. A play documenting Stonewall's causes could be powerful; dramatizing who perhaps started the riots could be moving. Examining what role, if any, Garland's funeral bore could be provocative. But while Thomas O'Neil's Judy at the Stonewall Inn purports to tackle these questions, it doesn't adequately answer them. Good intentions do not a good play make.
Set in the Stonewall Inn, the Greenwich Village "bottle bar" that was both gathering place and sanctuary for gays in a time of regular police harassment, Stonewall assembles the expected crew of characters: Brendan is a naive dancer/prostitute; Michael loves him but is married. Jackson, a flamboyant black hippie, is always on the make. Bartender Hugh grieves over his lover's recent death. Winston, a gorgeous new guy on the scene, helps Hugh recover. Winston also asks suspicious questions about the raids on Stonewall and the payoffs that keep them to a minimum. Stonewall's mother hen is Jimmy, a substance-abusing Judy Garland drag queen who'd do anything to get hesitant boyfriend Jesus out from under his repressive mother's yoke.
Act one introduces the characters; act two brings them to fruition. But because they're so one-dimensional, they come across as types. O'Neil saddles them with such agitprop themes as job discrimination, aversion shock therapy and "sexual deviant" labeling from the military. These very real issues overwhelm the mouthpieces experiencing them. So it's not the human drama of history in the making when the patrons finally rise up; it's merely a history lesson devoid of dramatic momentum. As for Garland's relationship to what O'Neil calls the "lavender lads," we must make do with assertions that she, too, had a "fabulously tragic life." Instead of probing the symbiosis, O'Neil scatters Garland trivia.
In scenes smacking of Kiss of the Spider Woman, Garland appears on-stage via Jimmy's hallucinations. These encounters should be revelatory; in this production, they're damned. Tap pants and a fedora don't sell Mary Hooper's shapeless impersonation of the legend. The same applies when Randall W. Jobe, as Jimmy, vamps Garland. Excepting Roger Dieleman's effeminate Brendan, none of the performances satisfy; a few are downright embarrassing. Director William H. Brown makes numerous mistakes besides failing to inspire his actors. His biggest: emotional flatness. The somber moments sputter, the rousing ones limp.
Though Stonewall was a hit when it premiered in New York this summer, I suspect that was largely because it benefited by being associated with the numerous festivities commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. In Stonewall, Garland can't remember the lesson of The Wizard of Oz. I can: there's no place like home. This might come in handy for prospective theatergoers.
Judy at the Stonewall Inn, presented by The Company We Keep, runs through November 19 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. 523-9000.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events