In the mid-1950s, movie actors could ruin their careers in two easy ways: by publicly declaring (a) their leftist sympathies, or (b) their homosexual tendencies. (It's not so simple anymore--although, in observing certain Oscar winners over the past decade, it seems that the Pink Scare has outlived the Red one by 40 years and counting.)
Straight-Jacket, which recently opened at Playhouse 91, concerns the fictional Guy Stone, a matinee idol who is one of 1955's top box-office draws. He is also one of the most flagrant homosexuals in Tinsel Town. Guy Stone, Rock Hudson--get it? Not that this comedy has much to do with Rock Hudson, or has any other connection to reality. Stone (an engaging John Littlefield) is competing against another star, Freddie Stevens (Stevie Ray Dallimore), for the lead in the upcoming epic Ben-Hur. (Yes, the gender puns do fly.) Freddie is grotesquely heterosexual, but has some past connection to the Communist Party. Which actor's secret will do the most damage? How far will Guy reach to protect his? And is there a cute guy in Hollywood who isn't one of Guy's former lovers?
These aren't the only questions raised by Straight-Jacket. Another is: Why did anyone think this play was ready for an Off-Broadway production? (Ray Recht's slick set is more than the script deserves.) It's not that the horrors of the McCarthy era are off-limits for a sex farce; this particular one might even have a future as a half-bearable standard in regional theaters. But it needs a director and a rewrite. As it happens, the credited director is the playwright: Emmy-nominated writer/producer Richard Day. Day's bio unsurprisingly tells us that Straight-Jacket is his first venture into writing for the stage--and it would be safe to assume that this production is one of his first directing credits, as well. (These are called "early-warning signs," for all of you would-be theater producers out there.)
Day does know how to write funny lines--most of which he gives to Jerry, Guy's wise-cracking female manager, played here with a nice dose of acid by Second City veteran Jackie Hoffman. Hoffman's timing isn't perfect, but when she hits--e.g., in the sequence where she tries to perk Guy up at a party by searching through Judy Garland's purse for amphetamines--she's a riot. Yet for every zinger Day hands to Jerry or Guy (or occasionally to Sally, the ditsy secretary, played by Carrie Preston), there's a poorly conceived one for someone else, none of which bear repeating.
Day's attempt to write a farce about one of the creepiest eras in United States history is brave. But as a successful producer of TV sitcoms (e.g., Spin City and Mad About You), he must know that plausibility is a key ingredient in making even the wackiest situations comedic, especially when such specters as McCarthyism and homophobia are invoked. In one scene, it is the playwright's device to have Freddie suddenly pop into Guy's bedroom, deliver a few menacing threats, then leave. He could be ransacking the rest of the house for all we know, but the characters left on stage barely acknowledge this remarkable act of breaking and entering. At another point, after Guy has been publicly outed and his career destroyed, he is turned over by the studio to federal communist hunters as a sacrifice. The entire play then turns on Jerry's scheme to have the humiliated star "name names," which will supposedly convince the studio to rehire him as Ben-Hur. Huh? Let's just say that my suspension of disbelief was unwilling.
None of this holds a candle to the climax, set in a federal hearing room--a scene that doesn't contain an ounce of sense, and apparently exists only to reveal the play's thematic statement that "people don't want politics, they want romance." This is the tag line of Guy's happy ending with his new boyfriend, a writer named Rick (Adam Greer), after both decide to give up their ideals, stay in the closet, and sell out. If the playwright intended this conclusion to be ironic, he failed to inform the director (himself), who presents it in a way that is straightforward, sentimental, and, ergo, deeply sick.