Hollywood has a long history of hypocrisy when it comes to gay celebrities, so a musical that sheds light on their closeting is a production one wants to praise — if only one could.
The story in The Max Factor Factor, now at Noho Arts Center, unfolds in the 1930s. Two rival studios are battling for public attention while struggling to stay free of the prying eyes of the “Legion of Rectitude,” made up of self-appointed guardians of public morality. To the chagrin of the studio head honchos, the leading men in their productions — Lance (Jeff Scot Carey) and Hoyt (Jeffrey Christopher Todd) — are gay and attracted to one another. Each is promptly “bearded” — that is, married off or affianced, Lance to his sexy strutting co-star Alice (Jessica Howell) and Hoyt to his, kittenish starlet Clara (Jessica Snow Wilson).
But the men cannot resist meeting, and one day they are photographed in a compromising embrace, provoking the determination of one gladiatorial female crusader (Heather Olt) to destroy their careers. The plot then plays out as the stars’ struggle to elude her vicious intent, an effort you know will be successful, since the piece is conceived as a screwball comedy, after all.
Or is it? One element of the screwball genre as I’ve experienced it is the likability of the characters, who do dumb things but rarely with malice. Even the villains are usually simply misguided, or laughable in their lunacy. Here, by contrast, there’s enough small-minded meanness to go around. While none of the supporting characters is especially sympathetic, the women, in Adrian Bewley's book, are portrayed in an especially unflattering light. They are shrill, grasping or dumb, and complicit in sabotaging the two lovers. That’s not even counting Olt’s dragon lady, who is just plain repugnant in her villainy.
On a broader scale, the satire is humdrum. The romance angle between leading men may be unusual, but the takedown of Hollywood is generic. There have been enough lampoons of the industry, enough scripts about backstabbing and down-and-dirty shenanigans. Even where a degree of caricaturing is acceptable, you still need crisp wit and keenly chiseled characters — elements Bewley and his collaborators haven’t managed to instill.
Under Michael A. Shepperd’s direction, the performances — in general too loud, too large, too in your face — don't make the material better. Chana Wise’s lyrics are clever, but the vocals, sung to Joe Blodgett’s music, are only passable. Designer Daniel Mahler’s costumes are a bonus, however, especially the men’s fabulous, flamboyant ties.
Noho Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd.; through Aug. 31. (818) 506-8500, www.nmi.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece misspelled a character's name, Hoyt, and the music writer's name, Joe Blodgett.
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