Sordid Lives, playing at the Paradox Theater, brings some interesting baggage to the comedy stage. First off, Del Shores, who was well into his thirties when he wrote this script, considers this his "coming-out play." Like Ty, the central figure in his play, Shores had to go through the arduous task of explaining his sexual orientation to his family.
Unlike Ty, who only has his strait-laced parents to worry about, the Shores family included a wife, kids and in-laws. But the story gets kinda strange here. After telling his actor in-laws that he was leaving their daughter because he's gay, he asked if they wanted to be in his new show. Even weirder, the parts these loving in-laws eventually took are Wardell, a gay-bashing bartender, and Dr. Eve Bolinger, a frightening psychiatrist who dreams of going down in mental-health history with her "dehomosexualization" therapy. In other words, Shores saw his loving in-laws as the perfect choice for the two scariest, gay-hating roles in his rather silly script. Sort of creepy.
But then, Shores's entire script about ninny-headed, small-minded Texans is kind of creepy. Sordid Lives plays like a lewd, two-hour version of the Carol Burnett spinoff Mama's Family. Indeed, Shores's experience as a television writer and producer is painfully evident throughout the show. The small-town Texas characters are mostly ridiculous stereotypes. Their names alone ought to raise the hackles of most any self-respecting Texan. There's Noleta (Jane Wiley), who stuffs her face with fried chicken even as she wails over her wayward man; and Bitsy Mae (Marie Pettit), the black-leather-clad honky-tonk singer; sisters Latrelle (Elva Evans) and LaVonda (Susan Williams); brothers Odell (Ron Howald) and Wardell (Bob Scott); the drag queen Brother Boy (Kevin Reid); and G.W. (Darrell Murphy), the ne'er-do-well husband who hobbles about on wooden shins (his legs got blown off in Vietnam).
These wooden legs, it turns out, are the cause of all the trouble that gets this play going. Old big-bellied, grizzle-faced G.W. just went and left his darned legs lying around the floor of the hotel room where he and his mistress do the wild thing. And dang it all, she was kind of old and couldn't see too well in the dark. And when she got up in the middle of the night to tee-tee, she went and fell plumb over those legs and cracked her noggin on the hotel sink. 'Course that killed her, dead. Amen.
And Lawdy, Lawdy, what a scandal it causes in the small town of Winters. The play opens with everyone preparing for the poor woman's funeral.
Hair-roller-wearing Sissy (Barbara Jones), the dead woman's sister, is one of the few sensible citizens of Winters. She's got a table full of "homemade" rolls, cole slaw and apple pie (all of it looking suspiciously like Colonel Sanders's) to console the heartbroken.
Noleta, G.W.'s wife, is the one most broke up by her husband's bad behavior. And Jane Wiley plays Noleta for all her loud-mouthed, trash-talking, chicken-loving self is worth. Trouble is, Noleta, as a character, just isn't worth all that much. She's as familiar as weeds, as are most of the characters in Winters.
Shores has watched too much TV, seen too many movies. Noleta and her best friend, LaVonda, just like cartoon versions of Thelma and Louise, grab some guns and go down to the local bar to threaten G.W. -- who's crying in his beer, as all Texans do, over his dead paramour. LaVonda, who's been carrying a torch for gay-bashing bartender Wardell, simply can't forgive him for beating up her gay sibling Brother Boy.
Of course that happened 20 years ago, and back then, folks didn't take too kindly to drag queens. Seems LaVonda's deceased mother took the draconian measure of locking Brother Boy up in a mental institution, 'cause he wasn't safe. Now LaVonda wants him out. And she wants revenge, which she gets when she makes Wardell strip practically naked and prance about in his teensy underdrawers and a jeweled turban.
Cut to the mental ward and see Brother Boy, who's been able to procure enough makeup and fancy clothes to stay in drag even while he's locked up. (He performs for the patients on a regular basis.) The drag costume is a pretty standard sight gag. And it makes the scene between Brother Boy and Dr. Bolinger (Anne Zimmerman) all the more peculiar. Dr. Bolinger wants to make Brother Boy "normal." Not because she cares about him, but simply because she wants to get famous, be on the talk shows, get her book published.
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In this utterly ugly scene, she berates him, tells him he looks bad and tries to seduce him, slipping down to her leopard-skin bra and climbing on top of him. He responds by almost puking. Zimmerman's thin-lipped, well-dressed psychiatrist may be the meanest, coldest character to grace a Houston stage, ever. Kevin Reid's Brother Boy is big and goony in his tight dress and heels, and he's all the sweeter for it. But still, the scene is so hateful that it's difficult to watch. Moreover, it doesn't in any way fit the tone of the rest of the play.
The device that ties all these oddballs together is the absolutely ordinary Ty, a closeted gay who fled to New York and spends the entire play debating with his unseen therapist over whether or not to return to Texas for his homophobic grandmother's funeral. Each scene opens with a brief monologue from Ty in which he tells a little bit of family history.
In the end, of course, he goes back home and gets a big hug from everyone. Just like on TV.
Sordid Lives plays through September 27, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 4 p.m. Paradox Theater, 3722 Washington Ave., 522-2204. $17.