Cable in the Closet

Blond, bronzed, buff TV pretty-boy Lester Perry's got quite a secret. And it's filling him with an existential dread that no lightweight ex-soap star should ever have to deal with. Lester's gay, but he can't tell anyone except the male prostitutes he picks up in the middle of the night. Any man whose entire career depends on his heterosexual-hunk status would be understandably nervous at the prospect of the whole world finding out his steamy TV love scenes are just well acted. Despite the fact that the multibillion-dollar entertainment industry was practically built by gay men and women, Hollywood is still the biggest closet in the country. And in Keith Curran's The Stand-In, Perry spends his budding career hiding in the back behind the out-of-season clothes.

While Curran's new spin on the coming-out story doesn't say anything especially groundbreaking about the gay experience, it does successfully skewer everything we love to hate about television. His take on humiliating talk shows, outrageously bad cable flicks and those gossip mongers called entertainment "newscasters" is funny enough to carry the play.

The playwright (of Walking the Dead fame) has a fiery wit and an ability to show the bizarre in the banal, which is exactly where Perry's trouble starts. The minor-league golden boy makes the "brave" choice to star in a fatuous cable movie about a gay Jewish umpire who enjoys dancing the tango. Based on a "true" story, You're Out! The Gilbert Fieldstein Story is just the ticket Perry needs to break out of the ranks of bubbly soap-stardom and into the fame of prime time.

But brave as the gay umpire role might be, Lester Perry (Brett Cullum) is no gladiator for the cause. In fact, he agrees to take the part only after the director (Wayne Wilden) hires a stand-in for randy Gilbert Fieldstein's sex scenes. All those naked flanks and mounds of manly buttocks are more than the nervous Perry can stand. The bumbling complications caused by the actor's priggish demands are hysterical. Mired in the throes of the puddle-deep dialogue -- "Homosexuality is just like heterosexuality, but different" -- Perry gazes with appropriate longing at his lover (played by lanky John Area, who takes a screamingly funny shot at the overwrought, undertalented method actor). At the embrace, Perry disappears behind the set, and his double (Steve Bullitt) slips between the sheets with great fumbling fanfare.

Collaged together with few blackouts and rich juxtapositions, these scenes create a biting commentary on La-La Land, where mean-spirited inanity consumes the lion's share of airtime. Folded into the mythmaking machinery of television is Perry's real life, though he clearly has no idea who he is once the director's gone home.

Meanwhile, the media is salivating for a scandal. The gutsy Ula Kessle (Belinda Babinec) hisses like a snake at the possibility of gay gossip, and Jesus Morales (Ricky Catter), who bears a striking resemblance to news-dog Geraldo Rivera, is constantly nipping at Perry's heels.

So Perry takes a beard, the strangely named starlet Festa Longo (Kelley Ogden). A former victim of the tabloids, the hysterically histrionic Festa knows all about the business of image-making. Rumor has it she used to be a man named Carl. Unable to shake the story, Festa auditions for roles like "killer lesbians who nonetheless fuck men three times this month." Her publicist sets her up with Lester and calls the papers every time Festa might step out of Lester's bachelor pad in the morning. Young, energetic and full of who-gives-a-crap attitude, Festa is the perfect fake girlfriend -- until the publicist gets the days mixed up and the reporters catch the wrong lover stumbling out of Lester's door at dawn.

What happens after this point becomes a bit weepy, too much like the television drivel Curran has so wonderfully sliced up with his scathing irony. And Cullum, perhaps the weakest link in this production, plays the painfully confused Perry with such weightlessness that he can't find the ground even when his character finally does come out.

Otherwise, Unhinged Productions director Chris Jimmerson has put together an immensely likable if somewhat low-budget production. With little in the way of technical help (the set is nothing more than a dirty pink couch and a few stools), his supporting cast shines with a can-do energy and surprising comic timing. Playing multiple small roles, Elena Coates, Wilden, Babinec and Area create lots of laughs in not a lot of time. And Ogden steals the stage each time she vamps across it, her wild eyes conveying amused condescension at the idiocy of the world. One imagines that Curran himself often bears the same expression.

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Lee Williams