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Reed Birney and Michael Busillo in Texas Homos
(Photo © Kim T. Sharp)
It's not a good sign when you can't tell if the dialogue in a play is meant to be funny or if it's simply bad writing that you can't help but laugh at. Such was my experience with Jan Buttram's Texas Homos, a flawed piece that nevertheless raises some provocative issues in regard to sexual identity and class privilege.

Set in a small Texas town, the play centers on three men who were caught in a police sting operation at a public toilet. Cecil (Reed Birney) is a prominent doctor, while Jim Bob (Richard Bekins) is a Methodist minister. Both are married with children, and their indictment on charges of sexual misconduct could ruin their lives. The third man snared in the sting, 25 year-old Delbert (Michael Busillo), has less to lose; he sees the arrest as an opportunity to get the kind of publicity that could jump-start his showbiz career.

The local paper has printed all of their names and the reason for the arrest. Cecil is adamant that he not be labeled a homosexual; he even refuses to take calls from a gay legal defense league that wants to assist him and the other arrestees. Cecil views his same-sex encounters as merely recreational. We learn that his marriage was nearly wrecked not because of his homosexual inclinations but because he had carried on a heterosexual affair with Judy Kay (Karen Culp) -- secretary to Harold D. (David Van Pelt), Cecil's lawyer. The action of the play takes place in what appears to be the storage room of Harold D.'s office.

While it's clear that Buttram is critical of the practice of sting operations like the one that landed Cecil and company in jail, Texas Homos isn't an angry diatribe against such methods. Rather, Buttram uses the situation as a way of bringing her characters to a crisis point where they must confront their thoughts, feelings, and fears vis-à-vis their closeted sexuality. The playwright wisely avoids depicting her protagonists as innocent victims or even making them overly sympathetic; in the case of Cecil, in fact, she takes the opposite route.

Suffice it to say that Cecil is not a nice man. Accustomed to privilege, he tells Harold D., "I'm your richest client and I expect to be treated accordingly." He's ready to blackmail or bribe anyone whom he thinks might be able to assist him in getting the charges dropped. Oddly enough, one gets the feeling that, while Cecil may be worthless as a human being, he's actually a pretty good doctor. As he talks to his patients on the phone, he exudes a charming bedside manner that seems to put them at ease. In the midst of his own personal and professional crisis, he makes certain that they're taken care of.

Birney manages to capture many of Cecil's complexities, and his performance grounds the production. As Jim Bob, Bekins is good in the minister's quieter moments but not when he becomes excited. Van Pelt doesn't really have much to work with as Harold D., other than to constantly enter and exit with a worried look on his face. The role of Judy Kay is likewise underwritten and Culp plays her as a one-dimensional bimbo, which certainly doesn't help matters.

Delbert is set up to be a lightweight comic stereotype; he says things like "I can be as big as Clay Aiken!" and "I have sacrificed my cat for my sexual identity." Although Busillo isn't able to bring much depth to the character, his comic timing rescues many a bad line. My favorite moment in the show is when Jim Bob tries some religious counseling on Delbert, telling him that Jesus was tested in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. In a voice as innocent as the dawn, Delbert asks, "Tested for what?"

All the actors employ thick Texan accents that border on caricature, giving the production a farcical tone. Yet, the play is flatly directed by Melvin Bernhardt, and much of the action feels static. There are also some questionable staging choices: In one scene, for example, Jim Bob hugs Cecil for what seems like five full minutes as they stumble across the room knocking over furniture. This moment is so bizarre and out of place that I half expected one of the characters to suddenly wake up and discover that it was all just a bad dream.

In the end, too much of the play feels contrived to be theatrically viable. The dialogue is heavy on exposition and despite some good acting here and there, Texas Homos ultimately disappoints.

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