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An evening of fun with “Wicked Pagan Gays”

An outrageous clan resettles in West Hollywood



Krista Conti, Nathan Tylutki and Jeff Dinnell in “Wicked Pagan Gays,” photograph by Stephen Todt.

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.

Jordan Green, Jeff Dinnell, and Eric Allen Smith in “Wicked Pagan Gays,” photograph by Stephen Todt.

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.

Jeff Dinnell, Nathan Tylutki, and Ian Dick in “Wicked Pagan Gays,” photograph by Stephen Todt.

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



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Online Culture

Vlogger StanChris; My religious mom reacts to Norway’s “gay Santa” ad

My religious mom reacts to Norway’s gay Santa advertisement! Let’s see what she has to say about it.



Screenshot via YouTube

LOS ANGELES – The twenty-something StanChris, the Out YouTuber who has been building his audience on his YouTube channel by vlogging about the ordinary everyday experiences of his life as a young gay guy is back- this time interviewing his mother.

My religious mom reacts to Norway’s gay Santa advertisement! Let’s see what she has to say about it.

My religious mom reacts to Norway’s “gay Santa” ad


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Verhoeven returns with subversive tale of lesbian nun in ‘Benedetta’

Period drama delivers sex, violence, and horrors of the Black Death



Daphne Patakia and Virginie Efira in ‘Benedetta.’ (Photo courtesy IFC Films)

There was a time when Paul Verhoeven was a big deal in Hollywood.

The Dutch filmmaker first attracted international attention during an early career in his homeland, with critically acclaimed movies like “Turkish Delight” and “Soldier of Orange,” which found an audience outside of the Netherlands and brought him greater opportunities in America, Once here, he adapted his style to fit a more commercial mold and forged a niche for himself with violent, action-packed sci-fi blockbusters, scoring major hits with “Robocop” and “Total Recall” before reaching a pinnacle with “Basic Instinct” – arguably still his most influential and iconic film.

Then came “Showgirls.” Although the Joe Eszterhas-scripted stripper drama is now revered as a “so-bad-it’s-great” cult classic, it was a box office bomb on its initial release, and its failure, coupled with the less-spectacular but equally definitive flopping of his next film, “Starship Troopers,” effectively put an end to his climb up the Hollywood ladder.

That was not, however, the end of his story. Verhoeven moved back to his native country (where he was hailed as a returning hero) and rebounded with the critically lauded “Black Book” before spending the next two decades developing and producing new projects with other filmmakers. In 2016, he assumed the director’s seat again, this time in France, and the resulting work (“Elle”) put him once more into the international spotlight.

Now, he’s back with another French film, and fans of his signature style – a blend of social satire, psycho-sexual themes, graphic violence, and near-exploitation-level erotic imagery that has prompted some commentators to label him as a provocateur – have every reason to be excited.

“Benedetta,” which receives its long-delayed (due to COVID) release in the U.S. on Dec. 3, is the real-life story of a Renaissance-era Italian nun (Virginie Efira), whose passionate devotion to her faith  – and especially to Jesus – sparks disturbing and dramatic visions. When young novice Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) enters the convent and is assigned to her as a companion, it awakens a different kind of passion, and as their secret relationship escalates, so too do her miraculous episodes, which expand to include the physical manifestation of stigmata. Soon, despite the skepticism of the Mother Abbess (Charlotte Rampling), she finds herself heralded as a prophet by the other sisters and the local community, leading to controversy, investigation, and a power struggle that threatens the authority of the church itself.

Inspired by “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy,” Judith C. Brown’s biography of the real Sister Benedetta, Verhoeven’s latest work is perhaps his most quintessential to date. In his screenplay (co-written with “Elle” collaborator David Birke), the Dutch auteur – who is also a widely recognized, if controversial, religious scholar – gives free reign to his now-familiar obsessions, weaving them all together into a sumptuously realized period drama that delivers copious amounts of nudity and sex, bloody violence, and the horrors of the Black Death while exploring the phenomenon of faith itself. Is Benedetta a saint or a harlot? Is she chosen by God or mentally ill? Are her visions real or is she a fraud, cynically exploiting the beliefs of those around her in a bold-faced grab for power and glory? And if she’s lying, in the larger context of a world held firmly in the grip of a church that treats salvation as transactional and levies its presumed moral authority to unlimited financial and political gain, which is greater evil? Though the film strongly implies the answers lie somewhere between the “either/or” of absolutes, it shrewdly leaves the viewer to contemplate such questions for themselves.

What concerns “Benedetta” more than any esoteric debate is a sly-yet-candid commentary on the various levels of societal hierarchy and the ways in which the flow of power perpetuates itself through their devotion to maintaining the status quo. As Benedetta’s perceived holiness carries her upward through the strata, from unwanted daughter of the merchant class to Mother Superior and beyond, more important than the veracity of her claims of divinity are the shifting and carefully calculated responses of those she encounters along the way. Fearing the loss of their own power, they ally and oppose themselves in whichever direction will help them maintain it. It’s a Machiavellian game of “keep-away” in which those at the top will not hesitate to use economic class, gender, sexuality, and – if all else fails – torture and execution as weapons to repress those they deem unworthy.

Inevitably, the above scenario provides plenty of fodder for Verhoeven’s movie to make points about religious hypocrisy, systemic oppression, and the way white heterosexual cisgender men keep the deck eternally stacked in their own favor – all of which invites us to recognize how little things have changed in the five centuries since Sister Benedetta’s time. That, too, is right in line with the director’s usual agenda.

Ultimately though, the signature touch that makes the movie unmistakably his is the way it revels in the lurid and sensational. Verhoeven delights in presenting imagery designed to shock us, and key elements of the film – from hyper-eroticized religious visions and explicit lesbian sex, to the prominent inclusion of a blasphemous wooden dildo as an important plot point – feel deliberately transgressive. This should be no surprise when one remembers that this is the director who brought us not only “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls” but also “The Fourth Man,” a homoerotic psychological thriller from 1983 still capable of making audiences squirm uncomfortably today; and while all this titillation may trigger the most prudish of viewers, it makes “Benedetta” into a deliciously subversive, wild-and-wooly ride for the rest of us. More to the point, it underscores the film’s ultimate observation about the empowering nature of sexual liberation.

Helping Verhoeven make maximum impact with this obscure historical narrative is a cast that clearly relishes the material as much as he does. In the title role, the statuesque Efira successfully creates a compelling and charismatic figure while remaining an enigma, someone we can believe in equal measure might be sincere or corrupt and with whom we can empathize either way; likewise, Patakia exudes savvy and self-possession, transcending moral judgment as the object of her affection, and the two performers have a palpable chemistry, which is made all the more compelling by their thrillingly contemporary approach to the characters. Rounding out the triad of principal roles is Rampling, a cinematic icon who brings prestige and sophistication to the table in a masterful performance as the Abbess; more than just a grounding presence for her younger co-stars, she provides an important counterbalance with a subtle and layered performance as a woman who has devoted her life to a belief in which she has no faith, only to find herself overshadowed by a charlatan.

“Benedetta” is not exactly the kind of film that’s likely to put Verhoeven back on the Hollywood fast track – it’s far too radical in its underpinnings for that. Nevertheless, it’s a welcome return to form from a unique and flamboyant filmmaker we’ve missed for far too long, and his fans – along with anybody with a taste for provocative cinema – should consider it a must-see.

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‘Capote’s Women’ is catnip to older pop culture fans

Revisiting iconic author’s seven ‘swans’



(Book cover image courtesy of Putnam)

Capote’s Women
By Laurence Leamer
C.2021, Putnam $28/356 pages

Her lips are locked tight.

Your best friend knows all your secrets, and she’s keeping them; you told her things you had to tell somebody, and she’s telling nobody. You always knew you could trust her; if you couldn’t, she wouldn’t be your BFF. But as in the new book “Capote’s Women” by Laurence Leamer, what kind of a friend are you?

For months, Truman Capote had been promising a blockbuster.

Following his success with “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood,” he was “one of the most famous authors in the world” but he needed a career-booster. The novel he was writing, he teased, would be about “his swans,” seven wealthy, fashionable women who quite personified “beauty, taste, and manners.”

His first swan was Barbara “Babe” Paley, whom he’d met on a trip with the David Selznicks to Jamaica. For Capote, “Babe was the epitome of class,” simply “perfect” in every way; it helped that the famously gay writer was no threat to Paley’s “madly jealous” husband.

Babe’s “dearest friend” was Nancy “Slim” Keith, who quickly learned that if a lady wanted her confidences kept, she didn’t tell Capote anything. She shouldn’t have trusted Babe, either: When Slim left for a European trip, Babe asked if Slim’s husband could accompany Babe’s friend, Pamela Hayward, to a play.

Slim was aware of Pamela’s predatory reputation, but what could she say?

Of course, Pamela, another of Truman’s swans, stole Slim’s man, a scandal that Capote loved.

Gloria Guinness was highly intelligent, possibly enough to be a spy in Nazi Germany. Lucy “C.Z.” Guest was an upper-crust “elitist” with a “magical aura.” Marella Agnelli “was born an Italian princess”; Lee Radziwill, of course, was Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister.

Through the late 1960s, Capote claimed to be writing his masterpiece, his tour de force based on his swans, but several deadlines passed for it. He was sure Answered Prayers “would turn him once again into the most talked-about author in America.”

Instead, when an excerpt from it was published, his swans got very ruffled feathers.

Every time you stand in line for groceries, the tabloids scream at you with so much drama that you either love it or hate it. Or, in the case of “Capote’s Women,” you cultivate it.

And that’s infinitely fun, as told by author Laurence Leamer.

Happily, though, Leamer doesn’t embellish or disrespect these women or Capote; he tells their tales in order, gently allowing readers’ heads to spin with the wild, globe-hopping goings-on but not to the point that it’s overdone. While most of this book is about these seven beautiful, wealthy, and serially married women – the Kardashians of their time, if you will – Capote is Leamer’s glue, and Truman gets his due, as well.

Readers who devour this book will be sure that the writer would’ve been very happy about that.

“Capote’s Women” should be like catnip to celeb-watchers of a Certain Age but even if you’re not, find it. If you’re a Hollywood fan, you’ll want to get a lock on it.

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