Chicago Theatre Review
Out of the Closet and Into the Dark
The Glass Protege – Glitterati Productions
Love, loss and what they aren’t wearing. This might sum up the first impression of British playwright Dylan Costello’s latest play, now enjoying its American premiere in Chicago. Mr. Costello, an LGBT advocate and a successful screenwriter and playwright, may be remembered for the 2012 Chicago staged reading of his “Hello Norma Jean,” one of five finalists in Pride Films & Plays’ Great Gay Play and Musical Contest. Chicago’s Renaissance man, John Nasca, directed both that highly-praised reading and this fully-staged production of Costello’s latest play, which opened in London in 2010 under the title, “Secret Boulevard.”
The moral double standards and homophobia that still prevails within the film industry is the inspiration for this new play. Imagining the fear and heartbreak that handsome movie idols, like Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift, must’ve experienced during Hollywood’s Golden Age, Dylan Costello has crafted a play that exposes the secret manipulations behind the studio machine. Young actor Patrick Glass is poised to become the new, next big thing. This rising star is hired to play opposite Jackson Harper, the reining box office king. However, Glass falls in love with his co-star and, before their affair can be salaciously revealed to the public by Nella, a vicious gossip columnist, Lloyd, the studio head honcho, intercedes to curtail their passion. Costello’s play ricochets back and forth between 1949 and 1989, contrasting the young, fresh-faced, idealistic young actor with his bitter, lonely older self that he would eventually become. Forty years after the incidents that forever changed his life, and prompted by the kindness and encouragement offered by Ava, his German caretaker, Pat Glass finally comes out to his son, George.
This play, which had a successful run in London, is entertaining but still needs some rewriting. The concept and the theme is definitely worth exploring but, as it now plays, the story feels more manufactured than honest. Events don’t flow smoothly enough, partially because of the playwright’s format of using repeated flashbacks. The audience finally becomes invested in a character or a scene and then, bam! The story suddenly doubles back on itself. Other problems stem from plot developments and dialogue that seem unmotivated, coming out of the blue. This gives the drama a surreal atmosphere, which might’ve actually been the playwright’s intent. Most of the characters are more stock caricatures rather than realistic, fleshed-out people. That’s not to say this production is all bad, however. There’s a lot to like here and LGBT audiences will certainly find the story stimulating and some of its characters very appealing. Even the non-gay theatergoer who’s interested in behind-the-scenes Hollywood and the film industry will find this story fascinating.
John Nasca has directed this production with heart and energy. Aided by Tianyu Qiu’s expressionistic set, dominated by a giant, lit, Hollywood Hills sign, Mr. Nasca is given the freedom and ability to seamlessly move back and forth in time, keeping his play in continual motion. While some of the Nasca’s costumes need a bit of attention (Jackson’s shirt sleeves are about six inches too long in one scene), most of his creations are lovely and effectively evoke the time periods presented. Nella and Candice, the fictional blond bombshell of the play, actually become the fashion plates for this play.
Chicago veteran actor Tom Chiola, always a welcome addition to any cast, stands out in this production with his moving portrayal of Patrick Glass, in 1989. Journeying from a bitter recluse to a loving, hopeful, self-respecting man by the end of the play, Mr. Chiola is excellent. His performance is nicely balanced by Tracey Green’s Ava. Wisely employing just the slightest hint of a German accent, the actress makes this shy, mail-order bride, who gradually becomes Patrick’s friend and confidant, into the character carrying the heart of this play in her tender grasp. Chasen Hunter, listed as an understudy, played Patrick’s son George on opening night. His portrayal is a little stiff but, if he continues in the role, Mr. Hunter will eventually find his rhythm, making George more realistic than strange. Handsome Chazie Bly is likable as young Patrick and, as the focal point of the story, carries the audience with him on his ride toward love and fame. Baird Brutscher’s Jackson, the silver screen heart-throb and the object of Patrick’s desire, is a bit too gruff and macho at first, but eventually he mellows into a caring lover. Whether a fault of the script, the director or the two actors, the gay passion and romance seems to just suddenly arrive out of nowhere, without much warning or motivation.
The rest of the cast play their roles with care and earnestness. Lovely Brett-Marie Sivertsen is sexy and convincing as Candice, the ambitious but lonely Marilyn Monroe-like screen siren, with a few skeletons hidden in her own closet. Michelle McKenzie-Voigt is appropriately sneaky and sinister as Nella, the evil, lying gossip column queen. She wears John Nasca’s stunning period fashions and outlandish Hedda Hopper millinery with style and finesse. Christopher Carpenter, whose fine work has been seen everywhere in Chicago, is strong and fittingly smarmy and unlikable as Lloyd.
Dylan Costello’s admirable play, while not yet the flowing, finished work it needs to become, is worth visiting for its unique story and theme. For anyone interested in gay rights or the unsung machinations of the film industry, this is a thought-provoking, stylishly performed drama that will entertain adult audiences. It should be noted that there is full-frontal nudity and acts of simulated sex involved in this production; those easily offended might want to steer clear. However, more sophisticated audiences who are not easily offended will find this play to be a rewarding experience.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 20-March 29 by Giant Cherry Productions, in Association with Glitterati Productions at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-975-8150 or by going to www.theaterwit.org.
Additional information about this and other productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.