It might not be entirely accurate to call Jan Buttram's new play Texas Homos a condemnation of red-state morality, but it's not far off. The title alone tells you much about the play Buttram has envisioned: she wants to anger, to challenge, to confront the intolerance latent within that titular slur. Sadly, the play never gets more provocative than its title.
It's difficult to sustain interest in the play after it becomes evident that Buttram isn't willing to offend. She wants a universal and accessible story, and that's exactly what she's written: Though the play is set in Tyler, Texas, none of the five characters represents the homophobic world that Buttram is railing against. Instead, the characters all have secrets or are dealing with others' secrets, but the stakes never get higher than that. The resulting play is so tame that no cowboy worth his spurs would bother with it.
For example, the characters: The town's doctor, Cecil (Reed Birney), is closeted. The town's pastor, Jim Bob (Richard Bekins), is closeted. A thoroughly effeminate young man named Delbert (Michael Busillo) is closeted. The lawyer-turned-politician representing them all after their arrest for public sexual misconduct, Harold D. (David Van Pelt), is... well, you get the idea. The fifth and final character, Harold D.'s assistant Judy Kay (Karen Culp), is actually straight, but still in a perpetually sour mood from an affair with Cecil that ended badly.
The play revolves around little more than Cecil and Jim Bob's attempts to protect their secret lives, with Cecil growing increasingly unruly and vicious in his attempts to buy testimony from the others as the play unfolds. But this is a very by-the-numbers work: It's not particularly surprising that Jim Bob undergoes a faith-inspired change of heart that threatens his lifelong friendship with Cecil, or that Cecil is willing to discard that friendship to maintain the fragile but profitable fašade he's established for himself over the years. (This being Texas, of course, he'd be finished if any of this got out.)
It's clear that Buttram finds Cecil's actions and attitude most objectionable and worthy of criticism, and her notion of using him to underline the importance of being true to yourself even in the face of overwhelming odds isn't a bad one. But Buttram so overemphasizes this idea that it becomes increasingly difficult to see Cecil as anything other than a symbol. This places too great a burden on him, and the only other character capable of sharing it - the group's only outsider and thus the only one capable of seeing clearly, Judy Kay - is too underwritten to be of any help.
Few characters impart any real insight, and that gives the actors little to work with. Birney and Bekins are experienced enough that they can frequently make something out of nothing, but even they falter in a wildly misconceived (and unnecessarily violent) final scene that exists primarily for the purpose of knocking over the metal shelves in James F. Wolk's back-room set. Van Pelt is frustratingly non-specific, and Culp never unravels the cipher that is Judy Kay.
Director Melvin Bernhardt generally coaxes relaxed portrayals from his performers, though he allows Busillo to take his "young and gay" angle quite a bit further than the other actors bother with. For this play, though, that's actually not too bad a thing - Busillo makes the most of his opportunities, finding all the comedy imaginable in the borderline stereotypical lines Buttram has given him. Unexciting and harmless as the rest of the show is, at least Busillo does his best to make his moments in the spotlight memorable.
Still, wouldn't you expect a play about a gay doctor, a gay priest, a young gay aspiring dancer, and a gay lawyer all wrestling with the aftermath of lewd public conduct to be truly hilarious and incidentally thoughtful? For that, though, the author would have to be willing to take risks that extend beyond what the play is called - The Boys in the Band and its modern analogue The Last Sunday in June, as but two examples, offer humor and insight in considerable quantities and have titles that are impossible to forget.
Most of Texas Homos, though, doesn't stick with you very long after it ends. Perhaps Buttram would have been better saving her daring and creativity for the play rather than just the title?
Abingdon Theatre Company