Between a Frock and a Hard Place

Our grandparents might consider male transvestism a daring subject for a drama. The rest of us, having seen plenty of this sort of stuff on TV talk shows, attend a program like PlayWright's Theatre's The Wedding Present with hopes for a new take on a tired topic. Unfortunately, this production, penned by local playwright Marilyn H. Allen, offers little more than a superb performance by its leading lady.

Allen's story concerns Brad Sexton (Steven Scally), a lawyer with political aspirations who reveals to his wife and law partner on their wedding night that he's, ta-da!, a transvestite. Brad explains to Susan (Ginny Harmon) that she must learn to love "Barbara," his female alter ego, or Susan can kiss him--and their law practice--goodbye.

This speech is made about 10 minutes into Act One, and makes a villain of the guy in the dress we're supposed to be rooting for. It's bad enough that Brad's waited until after he married Susan to tell her he's a transvestite, but when he blackmails her into staying with him, Allen destroys any sympathy we may have felt for her central character.

Scally does what he can with this callous character part, but it's hopeless. Just as we begin to warm up to Brad, he's made to wander onstage in full, frumpy drag, looking for all the world like Benny Hill. After that, Scally's portrayal of a sensitive guy with a thing for lingerie plays like a punch line to a dumb joke.

Allen's movie-of-the-week treatment teaches us nothing about cross-dressing or those who practice it. I left the theater not knowing anything more about why a man might get off on wearing dresses than when I arrived. And Allen's muddled ending, which finds Brad weeping over a box of women's lingerie, baffled the opening-night audience: No one, including this critic, had any idea what had been resolved.

The only real revelation here is that Harmon, who's proven herself in numerous comic roles, can play drama as convincingly as she can comedy. The best scene in the play is hers: At a press conference about her husband's fondness for frocks, Harmon, eyes brimming, explains that she supports her husband's habit, and even jokes about photos of him in a tutu. Later, she privately taunts him and tells him she never wants to see "Barbara" again.

Director Sally Jo Bannow, a talented actress and singer, should stick to performing. Bannow's blocking too often finds her performers' backs playing to the audience, and her set changes are interminable and mostly unnecessary, since most of the action takes place in the same room. Her director's notes "invite us all to choose acceptance" of transvestism, but her direction of Allen's talky, uninspired two-act leaves us only one option: to remain in the dark about why men sometimes dress as women.

The Wedding Present continues through Saturday, January 31, at PlayWright's Theatre, 1121 North First Street. For more information, see the Performance listing in Thrills.