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Party Mix 

Comedy and messages from the gay stage

Wednesday, Mar 31 1999
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Photo by Craig SchwartzANY PLAY THAT'S BUILT UPON RECURRING BLACKOUT scenes spoofing an already self-parodic TV show (and whose curtain went up 25 minutes late when I attended) needs to move at a blurring pace and have its lighting cues set with digital accuracy. If it has these things, the night has a chance of making us laugh while, perhaps, provoking thoughts about the state of television. If not, it turns into WeHo, writer-director Nic Arnzen's send-up of not one but two prime-time soaps, Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210.

This large-cast comedy, appearing at the Celebration Theater, barely exaggerates the Pavlovian dramaturgy guiding the Aaron Spelling serials being satirized. There's Mira (Scott Presley), a ruthless blond whose magazine, WeHo, makes but mostly breaks careers and businesses in West Hollywood; her even more ruthless editor, Stanton (Patrick Kearney), is hated by nearly everyone in town, including gay lovers Brandon and Dillon (Arnzen and John William Stevenson) and gym hunk Gunther (Steve Callahan), whose nude photos have mysteriously surfaced in the magazine.

In all fairness to Arnzen, he is unerringly on target when locating the quirks about Melrose Place and 90210 that we love to hate, from their characters' hyperincestuous living and professional milieu, to key discoveries and blackmail opportunities arising from laughably convenient coincidences; Arnzen's staging even mimics the peculiar way Fox-TV's commercial-break teasers appear onscreen.

However, the mock serial is continually interrupted by mock commercial breaks that run on far longer than real ones ever would, preventing this hourlong show from building up any comedic steam. But this pales before the central question: Why even bother spoofing shows that barely take themselves seriously and are on their last legs anyway?

Both Melrose Place and 90210 initially commanded large gay followings, filling a TV void left by Dynasty. Melrose Place, in particular, offered bitchy attitude and cat fights galore, yet it also presented an outrageously fake West Hollywood that was infuriatingly heterosexual. In other words, Melrose Place and, to a lesser extent, 90210 begged to be parodied onstage.

And now they have been -- far, far too late. Perhaps to compensate for the tardiness and its own Pic n' Save production values, WeHo resorts to the studied amateurism that infects many gay-themed spoofs, notably such Plush Life Players fare as The Plush Life and Queen of Outer Space. This unfortunate blooper aesthetic encourages onstage mishaps in the apparent belief that the "actor's nightmare" can only be funnier than the scripted dialogue. And so wigs fly off actors' heads, lines are "forgotten," and scenery collapses -- all with a suspiciously programmed appearance.

Professionalism isn't universally held to be a crime in gay comedy theater, however. Doug Holsclaw's The Last Hairdresser, a runaway hit at San Francisco's Theater Rhinoceros and currently on view at West Hollywood's Zephyr Theater, looks and runs like a Swiss watch: Actors handle rapid-fire dialogue and costume changes with ease and, under Danny Scheie's balletic direction, turn on a dime. But the script lacks any kind of build, choosing instead to be one of those biographical farces in which the lead character/narrator (Scheie) spends the evening telling us, "This happened, then I went here, and then that happened." The story involves a self-proclaimed sissy's odyssey from grade school to hairdressing academy, along with subordinate stories about two other gay men. It's funny for a while, but, as Vito Russo wrote in The Celluloid Closet, "Nobody likes a sissy," especially a one-dimensional sissy. It isn't long before we realize that we're laughing simply because the dialogue is filled with jokes and not because the story reveals an ironic understanding of its characters' lives.

RETURNING TO THE CELEBRATION THEATER, HOWEVER, we find a little show with a big heart -- and a message that is delivered by a committed cast. "No Nudity," warns Too Old for the Chorus' program notes, a playful reminder of its venue's long-running musical hit, Naked Boys Singing!, as well as our squeamishness toward "mature" bodies. For this musical revue, conceived by Mark Winkler and written and scored by Winkler, Marie Cain and Shelly Markham, is an appeal for understanding made by entertainers who are middle-aged and beyond.

The writers (all of whom have extensive show-business résumés) know they must tread carefully before most audiences, for they cannot be perceived as complainers nor can they pander to us. What they accomplish, in their middle-of-the road manner, is a straightforward candor about what it means to be talented, thoughtful, sexual and "old" in an entertainment industry that prefers to treat anyone over 30 as invisible. The performers (Jo Hinds, Alvin Ing, Virginia McMath, Wayne Moore and Sammy Williams) sing and dance what might be called Sondheim-ish tunes about first dates, cosmetic surgery and bygone sartorial elegance.

Some of the material runs a little precious, but we can take cute when there's intelligence attached, as there is here. The numbers reverberate with wit and humanity, and, although predominantly gay-themed, the evening's love motifs embrace a universal optimism about relationships, along with the belief that people should be accorded dignity even when their hair thins or their cheeks sag. The ensemble of artful codgers performs with élan and intelligence, thanks to Robert Schrock's staging, Chrissy Bocchino's choreography and Bill Schneider's musical direction. Some members are more adept than others, with Sammy Williams, the Tony-winning Paul San Marco from A Chorus Line, the obvious standout. McMath, oddly enough, is obviously only in her 30s, and at one point confesses to playing under age -- her role calls for a 42-year-old; come to think of it, that's a pretty disturbing piece of information.

TOO OLD FOR THE CHORUS | Written and composed by MARK WINKLER, MARIE CAIN & SHELLY MARKHAM | At the CELEBRATION THEATER | 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through May 30

WEHO | By NIC ARNZEN At the CELEBRATION THEATER | 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood Through May 7

THE LAST HAIRDRESSER By DOUG HOLSCLAW | At the ZEPHYR THEATER | 7456 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood | Through April 4

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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