CAMPY LAUGHS FROM BROAD CHARACTERS
Playwright Zsa Zsa Gershick is best known for her GLAAD and NAACP award-winning play Bluebonnet Court, a drama with humorous moments. With her latest world-premiere at Moxie Theatre, Coming Attractions, she flips the intention, giving us instead a wit-filled comedy with touching moments.
Though all-but-one of the characters are fiction, the premise is based on a real weekend experienced by the openly-lesbian playwright. In 1979, Ms. Gershick and her then-girlfriend visited a Palm Springs resort that had once been a hideaway retreat for the secretly-gay Hollywood rich-and-famous in the 1950′s. To stay at the Desert Knight Hotel, one had to either know the owner or be recommended as trustworthy. The young playwright-to-be inadvertently arrived on the weekend that the beloved owner had suddenly died, and spent the weekend hearing stories of the history of the hotel from the woman who had managed it since the 1950′s. If those walls could talk!
Coming Attractions reimagines that fated weekend, adding fiction to create a delightful storyline in which the passing of owner Dee Dee brings her dearest Hollywood friends, loyal gay vacationers, and assorted tag-alongs back to the hotel for her funeral.
The play opens at the resort in 1979 where hip, 21-year-old, out-and-proud lesbian Rebecca (Amanda Morrow) arrives for a vacation, not knowing it is the day of Dee Dee’s funeral. An avid old-film buff, Rebecca pleads with property manager Dani (M’Lafi Thompson) to let her stay anyway, as the history of the place and the Hollywood legends fascinate her. In particular, she is mesmerized by Dee Dee’s close friend, an aging has-been named Veronica Scott (Robin Christ), who could easily be the love-child of Rosalind Russell and Jane Russell.
Act One is all character development, but deliciously so, with a myriad of barbed one-liners delivered by old friends who bare their fangs at both others’ expense and their own. The melodramatic Veronica enters with the line, “Do I smell Vermouth, children? God, I love a wake,” setting the tone for a lot of liquor-induced tales and confessions.
The most memorable aspect of Act One is the comical scene where Quaalude-popping Donovan (San Diego newcomer Benjamin Cole) has hallucinatory encounters with the spirits of both homophobic pageant winner Anita Bryant (spot on performance by Samantha Ginn) and hotel owner Dee Dee herself (Jill Drexler), who each try to give him guidance in their own ways.
By the end of Act One, however, as much as the audience has laughed, we are left hoping that there is going to be something more substantial to come. Fortunately, Ms. Gershick already had that in mind and the over-the-top stereotypes begin to drop their emotional armor and put-upon masks, revealing the humanity behind their manners. Even the terminally-perky Anita Bryant begins to get a little real. In particular, Veronica’s vulnerability is exposed, and the character is played with a combination of brashness and sensitivity by Ms. Christ under the guidance of co-directors Jennifer Thorn and Joanne Glover.
Some themes, such as aging, are universal (“I used to look forward to my prime; how was I to know that that was it?” laments Veronica’s friend Morris, played by Mark Petrich), but overall the characters are too broad to be particularly relatable. This is not to say that the more emotional moments aren’t interesting, entertaining, and well-acted, but they fall short of creating the lump in one’s throat.
Moxie Theatre is to be commended for pushing the envelope as this is, by far, the most gay-oriented play they have staged, but many of the references may be out of the experience of their broad audience – how many people know that a “Disco Biscuit” refers to a Quaalude? Plus, younger attendees may find the Anita Bryant character funny, but they will have no clue that she is far more to history than what the script implies. The script could be tightened, and the opening scene, in which Rebecca sets up the plot by talking to herself, is a bit odd, needing more suspension-of-disbelief than it should have. Still, the parade of Ms. Gershick’s unique characters, and playful costuming by Jeannie Galioto, yield both a bounty of laughs and some touching moments, reminding me that beyond our birth family is the family of people we choose to surround ourselves with, even if that means we sometimes want to strangle THEM just as much as we do our own family.
photos by Missy Bradstreet
Moxie Theatre in San Diego (Regional Theater)
scheduled to end on July 1
for tickets, visit http://www.moxietheatre.com