Scott Hess is not transgendered, but he plays one on the stage. He is an actor who attempts to give a tour de force performance as multiple characters in his one man show B.J.: The Trail of a Transgender Country Singing Star. While Hess is certainly talented, B.J. seems to miss the mark.
I am all for non-traditional casting, yet I find it odd that Hess chose to use a transgendered character at the center of his piece. He is not quite successful in playing B.J. Ironically, Hess is most convincing as several female characters. Ida Parker, a talent agent who discovers B.J., is quirky fun when she boasts with her Fargo accent "I can sense talent a mile away." Hess is also quite powerful as B.J.'s mother, a Bible-thumping homophobe in such denial about her son that she actually pretends he is dead rather than accept him as transgendered. But although Hess seems to know the difference between drag queens, transvestites and transgender people--B.J. even defines the difference for the audience--his central character seems much more like a drag queen than a woman. Which is, after all, what true transgenders are: female.
The actual plot of the show is simple: B.J. is the first transgendered person to perform at the Grand Ol' Opry. The show jumps back and forth in time as various relatives, friends, and acquaintances trace B.J.'s meteoric rise to fame. The theme and plot remind one of a country-twanged Hedwig, but this show is, unfortunately, much more obvious. One of its greatest plot flaws is its telegraphed "surprise" ending. B.J. makes continual references to Robert Altman's famous film Nashville; in fact, B.J. claims to have been in the film as a child. Anyone who has seen that movie knows of its protagonist's murder, making it obvious how B.J. is going to end up.
The show works best when it sticks to comedy, which is, thankfully, much of the time. B.J.'s mentor, Lady Charade, offers some hysterical female guidance--"Lana Turner...that chick could not act, but she could sit!"--and then flawlessly shows us just what she means. She also gives us a titillating lesson on how to walk in heels. Hess is charming as he effortlessly engages the audience, and is excellent when he improvises. But when B.J., the show, tries to take a more serious look at the life of B.J., the character, it falls flat.
The press release states, "To research the role of B.J., Hess wandered Hell's Kitchen for several days as a woman." But what has that to do with B.J.'s life? I think Hess became obsessed with the issue of B.J.'s gender rather than taking the time to create a fully realized, multifaceted character.
There are moments when B.J. does start to shine. When she talks wistfully about losing her female virginity--how it felt, both physically and spiritually--and when she speaks lovingly of her mother, even though mom damns B.J. to a life in Hell, I found myself quite moved. But although B.J. is clearly a plea for inclusion and tolerance, after the performance, I felt like I had attended a lecture rather than a riveting theater piece. And, as it is playing in the West Village, B.J. is an example of preaching to the converted anyway.
Judging from how well rounded his women characters were, if Hess had just thought of B.J. as female and not transgendered, he might have come up with a much more compelling show. As one of Hess' characters states, "I know a fake when I see one." Well, why didn't Hess?