It takes a great deal of skill to write a comedy about the real-life murder of a gay man, while still maintaining the humanity and integrity of the story. Sleeping With Straight Men by Ronnie Larsen, fails spectacularly in doing this by offering an ultimately shallow piece that lacks vision or sophistication in dealing with the sensitive subject matter.
Trailer park boy Stanley lives in small town Pontiac, and has a habit of lusting after straight men. He befriends Sally a local drag queen, and while dining together they are served by Lee a straight waiter who Stanley falls for. Stanley is celebrity obsessed, and sees a chance to reveal his true feelings for Lee by appearing on television in the Jill Jones Chat Show, where guests reveal they have a crush on someone. Intrigued to find out who his secret admirer is, Lee goes on the show only to feel humiliated when he finds out it is a man. His request not to air the recorded episode is ignored by the TV producers, and in a state of high anxiety Lee shoots Stanley as a result.
Larsen’s 2002 play is based on a real-life tragedy. In 1995 Jonathan Schmitz, shot his ‘secret admirer’ Scott Amedure after he appeared on a episode of the Jenny Jones Chat Show called Same Sex Secret Crushes. During the show Amedure revealed his feelings for Schmitz, and unable to deal with the potential public humiliation Schmitz killed his admirer three days later.
While Larsen is 100% effective in mocking the superficiality of the chat show world where high ratings are more important than socially responsible broadcasting, he fails to find a balance when dealing with the darker side of play. It does not attempt to address any of the social issues that are raised, and borders regressively on inverted homophobia with all the gay characters without exception being stereotypes. The consequences of the shooting are seen almost as an after-thought with only the last 10 minutes focusing on the tragedy. The reactions of Lee’s girlfriend (played with great naturalism by Jill Regan), and the Stanley’s grief stricken mom are watered down to the point that it trivialises the issue. Any empathy for the character of Stanley (Wesley Dow), is alienated because he is played at such a pantomime level that he becomes a caricature of a caricature.
The play is slickly directed by Paul Taylor-Mills, and there are great performances by Amy Anzel as the plastic chat host Jill Jones, and Hannah Vesty as Judy her studio floor assistant. Andrew Beckett shows deft comic timing as Brian the camp make-up artist, and Julie Ross manages give depth to her role as the mother despite a very limited script. Adam Isdale gives a layered performance as the lost and confused Lee, which makes you wonder if he is the real victim of the piece.
Sleeping With Straight Men is a well intentioned play that fails to hit the mark because it does not offer any intelligent analysis of the issues it is dealing with. The story has great dramatic potential, and it would have been interesting to see it dealt with by a more capable writer than Larsen.
Sleeping With Straight Men is at the Above The Stag theatre, Victoria, until 12th February.
OLIVER VALENTINE www.abovethestag.com