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Sleeping With Straight Men
Sleeping With Straight Men is a breezily amusing comedy that achieves a surprising level of poignancy with its dark denouement. Receiving its premiere at Theatre Rhinoceros's Studio in San Francisco, the play is based on the events leading up to the 1995 murder that erupted in the aftermath of a taped appearance on The Jenny Jones Show. On the program, a gay man, Scott Amedure, revealed his secret crush on his unwitting straight neighbor, Jonathan Schmitz; then, three days after the taping Schmitz shot Amedure to death. Schmitz received a second-degree murder conviction and Amedure's family a $25 million settlement from Jenny Jones. Ronnie Larsen, who wrote as well as directed Sleeping With Straight Men, successfully translates the tabloid incident into a funny and provocative submergence into the quagmire of desire.

The production gets additional mileage out its ingenious casting. Mink Stole, renowned for her roles in numerous John Waters films (e.g., she was Divine's mother in Female Trouble), stars as Jill Johnson, the talk show hostess. As a bona fide graduate of the Waters trash aesthetic that was a precursor to today's tabloid-style TV, Stole lends a certain pedigree to the production. But while she brings sympathetic complexity to her role, she might have milked the comedic possibilities further by turning up the smarm factor when she is "on camera." Similarly, the casting of Dan Renzi--who achieved fame as an "out" male model on MTV's Real World-Miami--as the TV makeup artist nicely mirrors the talk show guests' compulsion for attaining instant celebrity status by baring all on national television.

Larsen, who has previously explored male sexuality in such shows as Making Porn, lightly probes the psyches of both the gay man, Stanley (Jared Scott), and the object of his affection, the straight waiter Lee (Aaron Wimmer), who both live in Pontiac, Michigan. Scott's goofy if somewhat grating cheeriness works well as a counterpart to Wimmer's blandly believable nice guy who eventually is driven over the edge. The cast also includes Nora Ludden in a snappy performance as the fast-talking TV producer; AJ Davenport, who hits the right notes as Stanley's bereaved mother; and Dia Shepardson as the put-upon girlfriend. Giving a breakout performance in his first stage production, Michael Williams (aka Sister Roma of the subversive drag collective Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence) plays Sally, a seen-it-all gender illusionist for whom Stanley works and whom he befriends at the only gay bar in town.

Larsen's effective weaving of multiple narrative threads is aided by a simple yet evocative set by Cat Stevans. The use of two different upstage doors cleverly serves to separate the talk show couple until the revelation and also starkly conjures the either/or quality of sexual orientation.

Despite a few stretches of slow pacing and predictable dialogue, the play maintains a brisk momentum over its 90-minute length. It reaches a comedic pinnacle during a drunken seduction scene, hilariously punctuated by Sally appearing in full drag while lip-synching Mariah Carye's "Hero." As Sally grandly postures amidst the couples' various simulated sex acts, the show scales to a giddy level of high camp that is imbued with a tragicomic vitality because we know that a violent climax is lingering just around the corner.

In Sleeping with Straight Men, Larsen and company have concocted an entertaining vehicle that has an appeal beyond a strictly gay audience. Juiced by its real-life source material, the play unfolds the laughs and pathos to be found in the minefield of human desire.

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