With a title like “Wicked Pagan Gays,” one might walk into the theatre expecting an outrageous evening of blasphemy, lewdness, and debauchery – with copious amounts of gratuitous homosexual fornication and at least a little bit of full-frontal nudity thrown in for good measure. Fair warning: that’s not what you’ll get.
The play, which is currently in its World Premiere run at the Zephyr Theatre on Melrose, is a comedy of manners which focuses not on the physical acts its name evokes, but rather on the conflict between different religious beliefs within the culture – or at least, within the microcosm of the culture reflected by the handful of gay men who populate it.
That doesn’t mean it’s a dry and dusty think piece, though. As written by Jeff Dinnell, whose long-running real-life “cocktail-fueled debates” with credited co-creator Greg Archer provided the inspiration for the script, “Wicked Pagan Gays” is more along the lines of an intellectual farce, reminiscent of one of those old-fashioned screwball comedies that thrived on stage and screen in the 1930s and 40s (that classic paean to feminine cattiness, “The Women,” comes to mind) – full of fast-talking characters, zingy one-liners, slick cynicism, and ridiculous coincidences.
Set in present-day West Hollywood, the plot revolves around two gay thirty-something men who were once part of the same circle in a small town “up north” in California. Jeff (played by Dinnell himself) is a recent transplant to L.A., an aspiring playwright and self-proclaimed atheist who hopes to start a new life in the big city; Greg (Nathan Tylutki) is a struggling journalist and spiritual seeker, who is fascinated with mysticism. Following “signs from above,” Greg is led to reconnect with Jeff, and manages to talk his skeptical old acquaintance to form an uneasy partnership in pursuit of an as-yet-unspecified financial venture.
In addition to their widely opposing views on religion, things are complicated by Greg’s relationship with Douglas (Ian Dick), Jeff’s personal nemesis from their home town. There’s also Jeff’s flamboyant gay Christian roommate (Jordan Green), a fresh-out-of-the-closet former child star (Eric Allen Smith) who believes in astrology, a hippie-chick (Krista Conti) who espouses the power of pyramids, and a B-list celebrity fitness guru (Emily Jerez) whose previous partnership with Greg ended in disaster – for him, at least.
The ensuing zaniness that results from the interaction of all these characters is best left to be discovered first-hand by the audience; suffice to say that Jeff, who serves as a kind of foil to all their off-the-deep end flavors of fanaticism, ends up being just as entangled in the mess as all the rest of them, if not even more so.
As directed by L.A. theatre veteran Kiff Scholl, the production moves at a fast and furious pace. This is a good thing, given the wordy nature of the script and its potentially intimidating philosophical arguments. The high-minded concepts being batted around in the dialogue are grounded by Scholl’s focus on the more directly human; he wisely guides his actors to show us what their characters want, rather than what they think, and as a result the whole thing comes off as a sharp satire on behavior instead of a pretentious game of verbal ping-pong. As for his staging, Scholl is somewhat limited by the lack of depth available to him in the Zephyr’s intimate space, but he manages to keep things flowing with enough movement and variety that the action never seems confined or static – no small feat for a play as simultaneously light and heavy as this one.
The actors are also adept, for the most part.
Dinnell is believable and personable as Jeff (as he should be, given the clearly autobiographical nature of the role for him), and yet allows the less pleasant aspects of the character – the bitchy, bitter, small town queen-iness of him – to come through without trying to polish them out in favor of likeability.
Tylutki has the showier of the two lead roles. Greg is larger-than-life, the sort of hapless, self-absorbed near-buffoon that might come off as either an idiot or a con artist; but the actor finds the sincerity that keeps him from being either, as well as the vulnerability that makes him sympathetic despite his obvious narcissism.
There are some scene-stealing stand-outs in the supporting cast as well. Green is hilarious as the roommate, Tyrell, and notches up the energy of the show every time he appears – which is only fitting for a bible-thumping black man who wears tight booty shorts and laments the fact that the boys are intimidated by the size of his equipment. Jerez is equally energetic as the over-the-top Jillian Stark, a delicious parody of the self-promoting Hollywood hack whose perfect exterior hides an abyss full of personal demons. Perhaps the most memorable turn of the evening comes from Conti, as Helene Aurora, the pyramid priestess, who manages to turn possibly the most out-there character in the play into the most sensible one with a performance that finds the perfect balance between kooky and down-to-earth.
Overall, “Wicked Pagan Gays” is an enjoyable experience; it’s a show with enough meat on its bones to stimulate the minds, but it never takes itself too seriously to be funny. That said, it’s worth adding that there are times when it feels like it wants to go further – like the farce should be a little broader, the characters a little more outrageous, the satire a little more savage. One of the clearest through-lines in the piece is the way the characters are all so judgmental of each other. Jeff repeatedly refers to Douglas, for instance, as the “Sanctimonious Gay,” but is himself, ironically, the most “judg-y” character of all. This does not seem accidental, but rather an underscore to a dominant theme. Likewise, the ultimate goals of all these people, regardless of any spiritual pretenses they may embrace or altruistic motives they may claim, are entirely self-serving. It’s a clear commentary on human nature, and it comes across crystal clear.
It also makes the characters just a little bit hateful. No matter how much we may like them (or even identify with them) during the course of the action, in the end we can’t help but see them as despicable, each in their own way. The play is unapologetic about this, and that’s as it should be – but perhaps a slightly ramped-up stylistic dash of that screwball element might have managed to make them, if not a little less unsavory, at least a bit more palatable than they are in their present, more realistic incarnation.
This is, however, a minor quibble and a matter of personal taste. “Wicked Pagan Gays” is amusing, smart, and irreverent – all things that make for a good time at the theatre – and definitely worth the trip into the heart of the Melrose district to experience for yourself.
Wicked Pagan Gays performs thru March 31st at:
The Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave. Los Angeles CA, 90046. Performances are Thu – Sat at 8pm and Sun at 7:00pm