How often, in the pantheon of literature and drama, do you find a guy performing an homage to his mom? Far more common in the annals of pop psychology is mom-bashing, the poor dear being blamed for inflated and ultimately unmet expectations of success, or for being overly controlling. When the antipathy gets strong enough, as in the case of playwright Joe Orton, the woman's corpse gets stuffed in a broom closet and mocked.
Leslie Jordan's new solo show, splendidly directed by David Galligan for Hollywood's Celebration Theatre, is an anomaly, in its admiration for not only Jordan's Southern-belle mother, Peggy Ann, but his father, too. Among the reasons this is so striking is the younger Jordan being so conspicuously swishy, an imp of a child bored to tears by the football games that dad dragged him to, while mother offered maternal protection when the kid wanted to play with dolls and dress up in heels. “Just don't tell your father,” became her recurring motif.
You might think the tension would have been amped up by the gregarious senior Jordan's being in the military, but when the elder's face gets beamed across the Colonial picture-frame screen suspended over the stage, Jordan confesses how much he adored his father, despite the older man telling his wife at one point, “I've scarred this boy for life, and that wasn't my intention.”
So where lies the conflict in such an intra-familial love fest?
Well, after dad left the scene, and when adolescent Leslie started sneaking out to drag shows and staying out all night, mom threw in the towel.
“Mother, I've made a really important decision,” he announced. “I'm not going to college. I'm going to move to Atlanta and become a female impersonator.”
“I don't even know what that is,” mom replied wearily. “You have exhausted me. I give up. I am just glad your daddy's not here to witness this.”
Compared with Del Shores' portrayals of gays in the Baptist South, which are more fueled by anger and absurdity, Jordan gets at many of the same absurdities of gay identity conflicts through a very tender humor.
Jordan now is a portly, silver-haired elf with a stand-up comic's meticulous timing, best known for supporting television appearances such as his Emmy-winning turn on Will & Grace. He enters the stage in a velvet dinner jacket and bow tie on white shirt and black trousers, thanking the crowd for its applause with what he admits is one of the oldest theater jokes in the biz: “I love a warm hand on my big opening.” After a droll smile, “I can't believe you fell for that one.”
When Jordan sits on a standard dining-room chair, he looks like a tubby 6-year-old, and the glint in his eye reinforces the impression of Pee-wee Herman man-child, but without the mania.
A couple of the issues that permeate his autobiography are the consequences of growth hormones that obviously failed but either contributed to or caused his hirsute body. He discusses his fascination with discovering his overly developed “bush,” hiking up his trousered leg and glaring into his nether regions with a goggle-eyed expression.
Other impersonations that stand out are a brief portrait of his blubbering doctor upon his discovery that the teenager has gonorrhea. Jordan says he made a point of seducing as many singers as possible in the Chattanooga Boys Choir.
Autobiographical solo shows are often a theater critic's bane, but this one has the virtues of stand-up comedy, satirical insight into the very human travails of being overtly gay in the Deep South, an enthralling eccentricity and a love of life that saturates every scene.
FRUIT FLY | Written and performed by Leslie Jordan | Celebration Theatre, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. | Through Feb. 18 | (323) 957-1884 | celebrationtheatre.com