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Looking for Billy Haines

This new play about the openly gay movie star of the 1920s barely taps the dramatic potential of its subject matter.

Jason T. Gaffney and Joseph Cullinane
in Looking for Billy Haines
(© Shirin Tinati)
An openly gay movie star of the 1920s and 1930s gives up his career because he refuses to live in the closet. It's a great story, but its dramatic potential is barely tapped in Suzanne Brockmann and Will McCabe's dreary new play Looking for Billy Haines, now at the Lion Theatre at Theatre Row.

The show is about a young actor named Jamie Hollis (Jason T. Gaffney), who is auditioning for a movie about Billy Haines, the real-life, top-grossing star who was told he'd have to get married to a woman if he wanted to keep working in Hollywood. Haines reportedly said to Louis B. Mayer that he'd only leave his boyfriend if Mayer left his wife. While the play itself is not a bio-drama, it does relate a number of juicy stories like this one, as Jamie finds out more about Haines, and seeks to reconcile the sometimes contradictory accounts of his life.

The focus of the play, however, is more on Jamie's own life -- particularly his relationship with closeted lawyer Harlan (Jason Michael Butler). The figure of Billy Haines (Joseph Cullinane) features in both Jamie's daydreams and nightmares, often realized within the course of the production with dance numbers, choreographed by Cullinane. Both Gaffney and Cullinane are skilled tap dancers, making these sequences the most dynamic within the show. Unfortunately, an act two pas de deux without the tap shoes is not as well executed.

Throughout the play, Jamie and sometimes other characters break the fourth wall to talk to the audience. This device is too often used to deliver chunks of exposition, or to tell the audience how a character is feeling, rather than actually showing us. Additionally, Brockmann -- who is also the production's director -- has been unable to find ways to effectively bridge several of the scenes, resulting in clunky transitions.

A number of unnecessary and underdeveloped subplots further serve to hamper the script, ranging from a case of identity theft to the love-lives of Jamie's three roommates. Lynn (Apolonia Davalos) has a boyfriend who is fighting in Iraq; Sugar (Annie Kerins) is involved with a long-distance relationship with an actor out on a tour; and former stockbroker Alan (Eric Ruben) has feelings for Sugar. None of these relationships are developed with much complexity, although Davalos is quite good in a scene in which Lynn finds out her boyfriend has been wounded.

Overall, however, the acting is woefully amateurish. Gaffney has a stilted vocal delivery and lacks the necessary charm to pull off his role. There's also very little chemistry between him and Butler, making the relationship dynamic of their characters fall flat. Cullinane possesses a certain amount of panache as Billy, particularly when dancing, although he's not as strong in his scene work. Still, this may have less to do with his acting chops, and more to do with the script and its hackneyed dialogue.


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