Of the many plays that deal with the ongoing struggle between the artistic and the commercial, few have laid the subject quite as bare as The Gay Naked Play, which is playing at the Emerging Artists Theatre through July 3. It's probably also safe to say that few have been as funny as this one is at its best.
A word about the title, though - it's not an indicator of the show's specific content (there's no full-frontal nudity) as much as a reference to the central dramatic conflict, which finds an acclaimed yet financially strapped theatre company pondering the artistic wisdom of teaming up with a group of gay performance artists to produce an almost certainly commercial strip show.
The head of the Integrity Players, Dan (Christopher Yustin), wants nothing to do with the plan, but is outvoted by his wife Amanda (Jessica Calvello), star actor Harold (Wayne Henry), and stage manager Tim. They've all been convinced that financial success is assured because the gay group's director, Eddie (played by Christopher Borg) has secured the services of a famous gay porn star named Kit Swagger (Gregory Marcel) attempting to break into acting.
If you think you have a good idea of where playwright David Bell wants to take The Gay Naked Play, you're almost certainly right. Bell doesn't aim for subtlety; there's almost never any question that Dan and his company will teach Eddie's group about the value of art, while they themselves learn the importance of commercial appeal. While Bell never loses track of this important baseline conflict, he always makes sure that it's handled with lots of good humor (if not always good taste).
But during the first act, the exposition, plot development (which also involves Amanda's skeptical but well-to-do mother (Ellen Reilly) becoming the production's major financial backer), and jokes keep the show running on high-octane hilarity. I won't spoil the fine work that Bell, the actors, and the directors (Borg and Jason Bowcutt) have done, as that would spoil much of what could prove to be a major comic highlight of the season, but the zaniness level is so high that even tossing a piece of crumpled paper to the ground has the capacity to generate huge laughs.
What's all the more disappointing is that, despite so much of what The Gay Naked Play does right, it never completely comes together. The second act is more heavily reliant on story than humor, so with the exception of one side-splitting scene (in which Harold introduces Kit to the acting techniques of Uta Hagen) and a couple of assorted lines of dialogue, the laughs in the second act are fewer and farther between. Even the climactic performance the company eventually puts on (titled Jesus Christ, He's Hot) doesn't live up to the comic promise the play has spent over two hours making.
This unevenness prevents The Gay Naked Play from being completely successful, though what does work in the show works so well that the rest of it almost doesn't matter. And the production is more than adequate in many other respects: Thom Weaver's lighting design is straightforwardly effective, and Robbie Cochran's sets and Jarah Moesch and Ellen Reilly's costumes are as pedestrian or gaudy as required. The performances are all fine, though Henry's arched-eyebrow, stuff-shirt acting makes Harold a notable standout, and Brett Douglas and Michael Silva, as Eddie's two cohorts T. Scott and Edonis, bring particularly delicious flamboyance to their portrayals.
It's because of so many of these elements are so strong - and because the first act so raises expectations - that the imbalance between story and comedy in the second act feels so severe. And if The Gay Naked Play as a whole is ultimately less than completely satisfying, the show does hit its targets much more often than not. For a play of this nature, that's almost - but, unfortunately, not quite - enough.
Emerging Artists Theatre/Theatrical Fare