The set-up: What an intriguing title for playwright/performer L. Robert Westeen's one-man show: Cocaine and Ethel Merman: The New Homo Guide. Dare I say my ears pricked up?
The execution: Queensbury Theatre (formerly Country Playhouse) presents a reprise of Westeen's coming out monologue, which had its world premiere in Houston during Pride month in 2012. (I missed that run, so this is my first time at this rodeo.) Since then, he has performed his autobiographical play at the 2013 Minnesota Fringe Festival and has recently returned from a tour of Wisconsin, his home state. I hope many young'uns up north had the opportunity to see this, if only to prove the show's maxim that gay guys are just like everybody else - well, OK, maybe with a lot more flair and a penchant for Broadway show tunes. (Minnesota passed gay marriage laws last year, so I guess they know what's going on, but it's nice for the young to be reminded anyway. Wisconsin is currently debating.)
Critiquing an autobiographical play is not the same as criticizing its author. Westeen has always been a particularly perceptive actor, and I vividly remember his hapless, harassed Nick in Joe DiPietro's minestrone-enhanced Over the River and Through the Woods at Company OnStage and his bitch queen from hell Harold in Mart Crowley's seminal gay play The Boys in the Band at Country Playhouse. He knows his stuff and how to deliver the goods.
He does so here with whiplash timing and subtle details that quickly morph into a new character, whether it's his not-so-closeted high school librarian who leads young Robert out of the shadows with literature, his bullying step-dad who drives him out of the house and into the psych ward, or the sympathetic hairdresser in town who perceives the conflicted kid who sits in the barber chair in the shop across the street from the neighborhood gay bar.
These portraits are performed with clever insight, but often the people appear and then swiftly disappear from view, as if too much may be revealed if we stay with them. Once Robert's out of the house, his parents vanish from the story. They're the very ones we want to hear more about. His alcoholic ogre of a stepfather, out of some twisted fairy tale, spews venom, calls him a "faggot," and then, poof, vanishes just when we want to know more about him. Delving into his psyche could add immense shading and understanding to Robert's painful coming-of-age story. When Robert finds safe haven with couple Brad and Jeff ("the mastiff and the chihuahua"), he finds his true home; but except for a very funny, sputtering sex education talk from Brad as willing partner Jason (virgin) waits upstairs for Robert (virgin), these two lovely lifesaving guys aren't given the credit they deserve. The impressionistic scenes are just that, impressionistic. More's wanted.
Westeen has a lovely way with comedy. Some of his one-liners would turn Oscar Wilde emerald, wishing he could have said such aphorisms. The play is filled with humor, some mordant, some plain funny, and he saves many a scene which might turn saccharine with a prodigious over-the-shoulder toss of salt. Throughout, we get a pungent encapsulated history of gay pop culture - dancer Bobbie from Lawrence Welk; Ann B. Davis from the Brady Bunch; the underwear fetish of the International Male catalog and its impossibly glabrous models; gay dance bars with that incessant, throbbing beat; tap dancing queen Ann Miller gets a passing reference, as does chief medical officer Dr. McCoy from Star Trek in his tight 23rd century uniform. All icons for young Robert.
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Directed by Mark Adams with a smooth eye to all corners of the intimate Studio 101 theater, crisply lighted by Adam Richardson, and with a very sharp sound design (which isn't credited), Cocaine seems like a prologue to a longer play. "Leave them wanting more" is the showbiz motto, but stopping the play mid coitus only frustrates. Robert gets through high school, finds a theater job, and that's the end. What is this, Volume I of the autobiography? Where's the rest of the story?
Now, about that title. Provocative as it is, there's nary a whiff of cocaine except for the inadvertent snort Robert takes from the trick he picks up in the bar one night. "One nostril's enough," Robert warily declines. In his basement theater, in the nude and wearing only a fur coat, this guy performs the entire Ethel Merman catalog until the wee hours of the morning. "It was the best 'Rose's Turn' I've ever heard by a naked man in a fur coat," Robert tells us with deadpan charm. The moral for Robert is that this Merman impersonator lived his life full blast. Hmmm, maybe. We don't really see this for ourselves. We have to take it as a matter of faith. We have to take a lot of the play on faith. As for the subtitle, "The New Homo Guide," if you happen to be born decades after Stonewall, or never seen Will and Grace or any episode of Modern Family, or never attended the Houston Gay Pride parade, then, maybe, all this will seem new to you. But where the hell have you been?
The verdict: Westeen's tract, though, that family is what holds us together, whatever that is and however it's comprised, while not the freshest thought around is still universal and damned good advice to follow. Don't be a bitch, we have enough of them already, is another maxim in Westeen's warm and fuzzy guide. How do we succeed? Well, there are Merman's words of wisdom for that: "I haven't the foggiest."
Cocaine and Ethel Merman continues through July 16 at Studio 101, 1824 Spring Street. Purchase tickets online at www.queensburytheatre.org or call 713-467-4497. $15.