Homo Erratic

"Gay men are supposed to be this highly evolved, artistic band of people," says theater producer Christopher Wynn, "so how come our plays are sold to us with the promise of 10 swinging dicks onstage at every performance?"

Wynn, an actor and former Phoenician, moved to Manhattan four years ago but is back in town to peddle a pair of arty gay performances that he hopes will draw a firm line between theater and soft-core sex shows. "There's this rotten trend in New York," he says, "where the ads for gay plays imply that there'll be a naked man onstage. I call it a careless disregard for the art of theater when you're doing everything--including bringing in actors with two days of rehearsal--just to keep naked men onstage."

Wynn is referring to the troubled road-company production of Making Porn, which is playing to packed houses here. Two actors have dropped out and been replaced by locals with only a couple of days' preparation; the sets were lost somewhere on the road; and the overall look of the piece is shoddy. None of this troubles Porn producer Caryn Horwitz.

"This isn't high art," says Horwitz, who refers to herself as "crass" and "a Jewish lesbian capitalist." "It's a fun play that's making a killing everywhere it plays. Everyone wants to see naked boys, especially gay men. Fags and Jews are the only ones who support theater, anyway."

Making Porn concerns a young actor who can't find work and whose greedy girlfriend helps him become a gay-porn icon. Ronnie Larsen's tepid two-act is meant to be moralistic and titillating, but it's mostly just annoying and full of contradictions.

Horwitz reports that critics hated Making Porn from its first performance, and it's easy to see why. This pedantic, unfunny comedy is crammed too full of dialogue and peopled with so many gay stereotypes that it practically swishes off the stage. Despite unkind reviews, Making Porn was an instant hit with audiences when it first opened in Chicago in July 1995. The show played San Francisco and Los Angeles before scoring a respectable off-Broadway run that lasted more than 500 performances. There are currently two road companies of the show, and it's set to open this year in England, Italy, Canada and Australia.

The Phoenix production is exuberantly acted by a group of mostly novice players, but even an Equity cast couldn't overcome the inept direction or the uneven, sloppy script.

Playwright/director Ronnie Larsen is all over the map with his messages: In one scene, he's trashing the amoral merchants of porn for objectifying their players and putting their health at risk in the age of AIDS. In the next, he's depicting raunchy sex scenes that are meant to be funny but are mostly only embarrassing and hard to watch.

This two-faced moralizing leads nowhere, and there's so much dialogue that the actors are forced to race through their lines to fit them all in. The solemn second act seems tacked on, and has nothing to do with the first act, which plays like a mean-spirited farce. Making Porn succeeds mostly as an excuse for a lot of naked men to approximate sex acts onstage. But as a reflection of gay life and ideologies, it's too conventional and carries unenlightened messages--such as: Straight men are more valuable as fantasy figures to gay men.

"We've heard all that before," says Wynn, who's come to town with what he hopes is the antidote to tired old gay sex plays: He's producing Eric Bernat's splendid The Seductive Art of Becoming God and Famous, which will open here this month before its off-Broadway bow in November. Although the play features only one gay character, it's homosexual by default, Bernat says, "because I wrote it, and because it comes from a sissy-boy point of view."

Thanks to some witty writing by Bernat and solid direction from actor David Drake (who's framed the play with the "All the world's a stage" speech from As You Like It, a showy notion that works all the same), Seductive Art puts forth a queer sensibility without being gay-specific. Bernat subverts the self-esteem issues that gay people face. "No matter how successful we are, we're still sodomites," he says, "and no one's letting us forget that." Bernat turns this inner conflict into the conditional dreams of a pack of losers, only one of whom is gay. There's an aspiring stripper, a rock star wanna-be, and a 9-year-old beauty queen who wants a pageant win more than new crayons--all portrayed by Bernat in a series of dead-on, lightning-quick character changes.

"Fame is everything to these people," says Drake, a movie actor (Philadelphia, Naked in New York) and playwright whose Obie Award-winning The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me played every major market in the world after a long off-Broadway run. "Like a lot of gay people, Eric's characters think fame will be their salvation."

Drake chose Bernat's play for his directorial debut "because I wanted something that was conceptually gay, and not about sex or hairdressers." He chose Phoenix because he wanted to work with Wynn and because, he says, ours is the sort of theater audience he wants the show to target.

"Look, if we wanted to do this show to tickle some elitist circle of theater people, we'd do one night in New York City and invite all our snotty theater friends. We want real people to see this show. In New York, they're all consumed with the bottom line: 'How will they sell it? How long will it run?' So no one sees the work."

Commercial success isn't something Wynn is averse to. He's banking on Drake's fame to sell Bernat's show, which he calls "a solid piece of art that I really want to get out there." But his ace in the hole is Miss Coco Peru, a one-character piece that's been raking in rave reviews and piles of dough for several months in Los Angeles.

"This is not your standard gender illusionist crap," Wynn says, although in Miss Coco, playwright Clinton Leupp appears in full drag, talking about himself ("Think of this as a therapy session, and it's my turn to talk") and occasionally breaking into song. But instead of lip-synching to old Streisand discs and dishing dirt, Leupp spends the show's nearly two hours telling us why he's not a drag queen.

"I'm not some artificially created character," Leupp growls between shows at L.A.'s Masquer's Cabaret. "I'm a man in a dress who's talking about busting gender and how gay people are perceived by the masses." Leupp throws in a little drag theory, as well, like the history of the Native American berdache and how much estrogen a pregnant woman needs to create a gay fetus.

Wynn says he knows that people will come to see Miss Coco expecting a drag show, "but they'll leave having seen an evening that's about narcissism and self-disclosure."

Horwitz calls this "pretentious nonsense" and says that theater is successful "when you sell tickets."

Still, Wynn worries that plays like Making Porn don't do anything to forward the concept of gay theater. "You have to be able to get past the chance to just sell tickets to a gay audience if you're going to call this stuff art," he says. "Otherwise, all you've got is the usual crap about drag and sex and any old excuse to show men's wieners."

Making Porn continues through Sunday, October 19, at Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre, 909 North Third Street. The Seductive Art of Becoming God and Famous begins Wednesday, October 22, and continues through Saturday, November 1, at Phoenix Theatre's Little Theatre, 100 East McDowell. Miss Coco Peru plays from Wednesday, November 5, through Saturday, November 8, at Phoenix Theatre's Little Theatre. For more information, see the Performance listing in Thrills.