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Greg Dean

The Houston actor is nine months into one helluva year

by Donalevan Maines

Greg Dean is on a roll. His film debut, a starring role in Backroad, screens Thursday, October 14, at Houston Horrorfest. But he’ll be too busy to attend because he opens the same night in The Marriage of Bette and Boo, which he’s also co-directing at Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company.

He’s directed himself before, and has even appeared in shows that he’s co-directed. But for Bette and Boo, he and co-director Jennifer Decker both play roles, so they’re, uh, co-directing each other, as a married couple.

How is that going to work out?

“We’re going to find out,” laughs Dean.

He’s feeling pretty confident. But who wouldn’t be? At age 41, he’s nine months into a remarkable year in which he’s earned the best reviews of his career.

“Never been better,” wrote Houston Chronicle theater critic Everett Evans of Dean’s towering performance in the title role of Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner.

“Dean gives the performance of his career,” echoed the Houston Press.

He followed that with a play called Hunter Gatherers in which he attacked the role of he-man Richard with carnivorous zeal. Pinning down the other male character and proceeding to f–k him in front of the man’s wife made the famous nude wrestling scene in Women in Love (with Alan Bates and Oliver Reed) look like a minuet.

This month, in Bette and Boo, Dean co-directs and plays the sadistic grandfather of Matt, the stand-in for gay playwright Christopher Durang, who actually originated the role alongside Oscar winners Olympia Dukakis and Mercedes Reuhl when the play premiered in New York in 1985.

Greg Dean’s traveling-salesman character in Backroad is “strange and unsettling.”

Matt’s homosexuality “is one more thing not to be emotional about,” Dean says, explaining that in Durang’s autobiographical, maddeningly dysfunctional family, Matt feels the need to “act like a little adult” because the actual grownups are so out of whack.

New York Times theater critic Frank Rich wrote that Durang “lays out the loony facts of a boy’s grotesque childhood, hoping the utter comic insanity of it all will somehow ease the pain.”

Dean lives in Sharpstown with his partner, Edward Dzengeleski, a talented furniture and design consultant who hails from Boston. Dean was born in Houston and remembers his teenage years at Cypress Creek High School being “just like a John Hughes movie.”

“Me and all my peers saw The Breakfast Club and thought it was the shit!” he says. “It was like being in the presence of something really profound. It was a touchstone for a lot of people.”

Finding his niche in the drama departments, Dean says, “I thought I was the bee’s knees. We all did. We felt we were much too big for the suburbs and we wanted to be more bohemian.”

Dean spent half of his junior year at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Montrose, and that’s where he met Jason Nodler, Tamarie Cooper, Aaron Krohn, and others with whom he’s spent the past two decades working in theater.

When commuting daily from The Woodlands to Montrose became impractical, Dean returned to Cypress, feeling as if he was “a barnstorming 19th-century actor impresario who could do anything.”

Dean with his partner, Edward.

“With that do-it-yourself mentality,” explains Dean, he cut Shakespeare’s The Tempest to 40 minutes for the University Interscholastic League one-act play competition, designed its costumes and sound, and played Caliban.

Next, he was off to the University of Houston.

“I dated both boys and girls,” he says, explaining that by deciding “to remain open to the universe,” he’s enjoyed two long-term romantic relationships.

The first was with his wife of eight years, when he was also studying theater at UH. “On one of our first dates, we talked about how I dated boys, too, and how I felt that I would end up with whichever gender I fell in love with. It’s never been weird or a problematic thing.

“If I like a person enough to put up with their shit,” laughs Dean, that’s the person for him, regardless of gender.

Dean and his wife had a daughter who graduated from high school this year and just entered college. But after their split, Dean realized that he had gone from living with his parents to “being a college student, a husband, and a father,” so he spent “a long stretch of being single.”

He became “one of the first” members of the avant-garde theater company Infernal Bridegroom Productions, where he appeared in shows ranging from Marat/Sade to Guys and Dolls, and directed, designed, and acted in shows such as Samuel’s Major Problems and The Cherry Orchard.

Dean says he also recruited Jim Parsons to join, long before Parsons won an Emmy Award last month as best actor in a comedy series for playing Sheldon in CBS-TV’s The Big Bang Theory. In Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, Dean recalls, Parsons “was dynamite.”

Dean says he doesn’t regret staying in Houston, where “the constant” of his various jobs in office administration to restaurant management “has always been to support my art habit. This is feeding my soul,” he says, “and the last couple of years have been especially gratifying.”

Dean’s head was shaved when director Wayne Slaten cast him as a likable traveling salesman in Backroad, so his character “was re-imagined as more of a semi-Western Dennis Hopper” type.

“I told Wayne that I had a black leather jacket that might work,” says Dean. “So my character became more strange and unsettling, but I nearly had heat stroke” wearing leather while filming in an un-air-conditioned car in Texas heat.

By then, Dean says, his “engines were already running,” so he teamed with two actors to mount their own production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker in a converted space in downtown Houston. “We didn’t even have a director. We just kept an eye on each other,” he says. “It was just something we felt that we had to do.

“All my friends who saw it liked it,” he adds. One of them was Jason Nodler, artistic director of The Catastrophic Theatre (TCT), and when they chatted after a performance in the parking lot, Nodler invited Dean to join Catastrophic’s company of actors.

Now, Dean finds himself back in the pack with other local artists who enjoy “raising the stakes” as far as what theater can give to adventurous Houstonians.

Durang’s The Marriage of Bette and Boo, says Dean, “is a poison pill dipped in chocolate. The comedy makes it go down easier. Think Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night mixed with the Marx Brothers.”

• The Marriage of Bette and Boo will be performed October 14–23 at Midtown Art Center, 3414 La Branch St. Information and box office: 832/418-0585 or mildredsumbrella.com/mu/contact.html.

• Backroad screens at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, October 14, at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, West Oaks Mall, Hwy. 6 and Westheimer, as part of the first Houston Horrorfest, a collection of five horror films made in Texas. Go to houstonhorror.com for ticket information.

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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