Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 33 / 17 August 2017
 

Messing with Texas

Theatre


Scott Cox (center), as the institutionalized Tammy Wynette impersonator Brother Boy, comes between his therapist (Melissa O'Keefe) and his rescuer (Robin Gabrielli) in NCTC's production of "Sordid Lives." Photo: Lois Tema
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It probably only seems like every gay man outside of North Korea has seen "Sordid Lives," the kind of movie that first found its audience through friend-to-friend word of mouth. To finally see the play that begat the movie is a surprising combination of discovery and familiarity. Outside of some scenes added to open up the play, playwright Del Shores pretty much kept preserved all of the original script for the screenplay. The key difference is in how the material was rearranged for the screen, and to now experience the original formulation elicits a noticeably different emotional response: more serious at times, but without any loss of humor.

"Sordid Lives," the play, had its debut in 1996, but is only now receiving its San Francisco premiere at New Conservatory Theatre Center. A packed opening-night audience, with many primed to revisit material fondly remembered, may have been taken short by the abrupt shifts in tones, but it paid off with perhaps a newfound respect beyond the merry memories of the movie.

Director Dennis Lickteig has wisely not upset our memories of the original performances, with the current cast honoring the screen progenitors while bringing their own touches to the roles. The setting is a dusty Texas burg where everyone knows your name – and your business. A funeral that touches many residents in different ways must be planned while the circumstances of the deceased's demise roils the town in anger, sorrow, gossip, revenge, and drag.

The play is structured in four "chapters" in different locales, given their own full sets in Kuo-Hao Lo's scenic design. While the movie intercuts among these chapters, they gather different emotional energies when played straight through. Each of the chapters starts with an appealing Luke Brady as Ty, a young actor in a New York therapist's office, providing his own backstory of growing up gay in a Southern Baptist environment, and his revulsion at the notion of having to "butch it up" to attend his grandmother's funeral back in Texas.

Chapter One is a scene of deliciously comic exposition, as Sissy must deal with a stream of visitors while trying to get the house ready for a post-funeral reception for sister Peggy. Outside of a character we are to meet later, perhaps the most affectionately remembered performance from the movie was Beth Grant as the saintly Sissy, given to popping Valiums, muttering "shit" between words of consolation, and snapping with increasing frequency a rubber band on her wrist to keep her from smoking a cigarette.

In an author's note in the script, Shores writes, "These people are real. Don't play them as cartoons, please!" As Sissy, Michaela Greeley takes to heart the author's note and draws big laughs by finding that sweet spot between where a performance finds the comedy in honest connection with the character. There are varying degrees of this quality in the performances of the various women who come a-callin'.

Sissy's not-much-younger niece Latrelle, daughter of the deceased, is all uptight propriety, saddened by her mother's death but mortified by the compromising circumstances of her motel room fatality. Marie O'Donnell humorously captures the character's keeping-up-appearances personality while also taking us into her heartache as the mother in denial of a gay son. Catherine Luedtke provides rich comic contrast as LaVonda, Latrelle's more worldly if somewhat blowsy younger sister, who rankles her sibling with her live-and-let-live outlook. And Shannon Kate is a sobbing mess with a big appetite as the cheated-on Noletta, who comes outs gun-ablazin' later in the play.

For the second chapter, we move to Bubba's Bar and a high-dosage testosterone as three regulars talk about manly things as various regrets come to the forefront. GW (Gary Giurbino) is filled with regret as a party to Peggy's accidental death, barkeep Wardell (Robin Gabrielli) reveals his regret at a long-ago gay bashing with continuing ramifications, while his nitwit brother Odell (Nathan Tylutki) can't shake visions of a pig's death at a county fair. The dynamics are upended as LaVonda and GW's aggrieved wife Noleta arrive drunk, armed, and dressed like Thelma and Louise to symbolically emasculate the men. LaVonda mainly has Wardell in her sites for his role 20 years ago bashing LaVonda's brother for being gay, which resulted in her brother being institutionalized. There's some serious stuff going amid the comedy, with Gabrielli performance as Wardell bravely going into some dark places.

And at last we arrive at the chapter that stars the movie's most memorable character, Brother Boy, a role that Leslie Jordan made indelibly his own. A gay transvestite with an obsession for Tammy Wynette, Brother Boy is in an experimental de-homosexualization treatment with a half-mad therapist (Melissa O'Keefe) trying out her masturbation therapy on the highly resistant Brother Boy. Scott Cox seemed an unlikely choice to be playing Brother Boy. Cox started his career at NCTC playing sexy young things, but he has graduated nicely into this wildly drawn character role. He is clearly pulling from Jordan's inflections, but he does so with aplomb.

An engaging and slightly subversive Amy Meyers periodically turns up as an ex-con country singer to sing a country tune, gospel hymn, or the delightful title song that reminds us life's a bitch but often unnecessarily judgmental. "The Lord's too busy tryin' to keep the world on its feet. He ain't got time to give a shit bout what goes on between the sheets."

 

"Sordid Lives" will run at New Conservatory Theatre Center through June 11. Tickets are $25-$50. Call (415) 861-8972 or go to nctcsf.org.

 






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