Gay actors at Main Street Theater embrace straight roles
by Donalevan Maines
Joel Sandel would rather be kissing a man.
But rehearsing the role of 19th-century Russian literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, he leans down and plants one on the actress playing a prostitute in Belinky’s bed. “The basic impulse, it’s the same,” he shrugs. “What’s the big deal? It’s lips.”
What is a big deal is Sandel starring in Tom Stoppard’s epic trilogy The Coast of Utopiaat Main Street Theater. No other theater in
the country has attempted to produce the work since it sailed into Lincoln Center in 2006 and broke the record for the most Tony Awards for a play, garnering seven of Broadway’s highest honors including three design prizes and a win for Billy Crudup as Belinsky.
Spanning the years 1833 to 1866, The Coast of Utopia follows four men who came of age under Tsar Nicholas I and whose passions for political and intellectual change were mirrored in their personal pursuit of love and happiness. As the arcs of their lives intersect repeatedly, the seeds of the great social revolutions of the late 19th century are sown.
Sandel and two other gay men—Joe Kirkendall and Seán Patrick Judge—play three of the four leading roles in Main Street’s production, the biggest project in its 36-year history. The fourth guy, who isn’t gay . . . I can’t remember his name. Oops.
“What’s interesting to me is that not too long ago there was a discussion about whether a gay man can be believable in a straight role,” says Judge, referring to a columnist questioning out actor Sean Hayes romancing Kristin Chenoweth in the 2009 Broadway revival of Promises, Promises. “I suppose it could be a problem if the actor is effeminate, very ‘pretty-pretty’ and fine-boned—but he wouldn’t be cast anyway,” adds Judge. “It’s really a non-issue for us. The only time it might come up is when we’re sitting around and somebody brings up a hot celebrity, and we say, ‘Oh yeah, he’s really good-looking.’”
Judge’s looks are often compared to that of actor Chris Noth. “Ah yes, I get that all the time. Just yesterday, someone said, ‘Does anyone ever call you Mr. Big?’” he laughs.
Coincidentally, Judge and Kirkendall were both born in Iowa City, Iowa, with Judge moving to Houston in 2004 to claim a man he met online. Kirkendall and his family arrived in Houston when he was 10, but he spent the past 13 years in Los Angeles. MST’s executive artistic director, Rebecca Greene Udden, who’s also at the helm of thetrilogy, lured Kirkendall back to Houston to play Alexander Herzen in The Coast of Utopia.
“How could I say no? It’s like being in The Ring Cycle,” says Kirkendall. (German composer Richard Wagner’s monumental opera runs about 15 hours.) “Instantly, I thought, ‘I want to be part of that shenanigan.’”
He adds that Udden gave him his start at MST. “He’s one of our big guys and this is a really big undertaking,” says Udden. “The only thing comparable to this is when we were able to do Sweeney Todd in 1991. Joe played the sailor who was in love with Johanna.”
Another major collaboration was MST’s sig-nature production of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, with Kirkendall as Scoop.
Owing in part to his scruffy good looks (Judge’s partner said, “Joe is gay?”), Kirkendall became a go-to guy for romantic leads in what he calls “heterocentric” plays. He also triumphed as the gay title character in Jeffreyat Stages. The part in Paul Rudnick’s 1995 play about a guy who swears off sex because of the AIDS epidemic “really changed my life,” says Kirkendall. “I was out already, of course, but the freedom to get to be gay on stage, to do something like that, I think it made me grow up.”
In California, says Kirkendall, “I mostly did really shitty plays. L.A. has a lot of theater, but it has a lot of bad theater. I tried to work in TV, but I got poor and had to get a regular job.” During the past 10 years, he worked at an L.A. United Way agency where he managed projects that were gratifying on both personal and professional levels. “I was the assistant to the president and CEO. I called myself Miss Jane Hathaway,” he laughs.
Kirkendall says that in 2008 he got “a kick in the head” when Proposition 8 voters overturned the constitutional right of same-sex couples to marry. “I was at the polling place handing out ‘No on 8’ stickers the day of the election. I never realized how conservative California is—once you get away from the coast, it’s the Midwest. It was truly, truly a heartbreaking experience.” However, Kirkendall is certain the amendment will be reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court. “Absolutely, because taking rights away from a group of people is really reprehensible.”
Since returning to Houston, where he’s being encouraged to stay, Kirkendall flew to New York City to attend the December 10 wedding of his longtime friends James C. Li and Richard Dowling. Growing up together, Kirkendall and Dowling attended Robert E. Lee High School, where Kirkendall performed as Motel the tailor in Fiddler on the Roof and the witch boy John in Dark of the Moon. “In eighth grade, I was Harold Hill in The Music Man,” he says. “That was the apex of my career.”
Sandel grew up in Huntsville and attended Sam Houston State University before studying in Los Angeles at the American Academy
of Dramatic Arts/West and the American Center for Music Theatre. In 1986, he moved back to Houston, where he has worked steadily for 25 years and counting. (Visit joelsandel.com for more on his accomplishments.)
Sandel was in the ensemble of MST’s Sweeney Todd and recalls Kirkendall as “a dear, dear friend. It’s wonderful to have Joe back,” he says. Judge arrived in Houston halfway through Kirkendall’s detour to California. “I understand he had quite a career here, and everybody’s so excited that he’s back.”
While Sandel’s role was huge in Voyage (the first part of The Coast of Utopia trilogy), Judge basically wrapped up both acts of that installment with his commentary as Ivan Turgenev. However, the characters played by Kirkendall and Judge will dominate Shipwreck (the second part of the trilogy) and Salvage (the final part).
Oh yes—I remember the name of the fourth leading actor, the one who isn’t gay. He’s Guy Roberts and he was fabulous in Voyage. With wonderful comic timing, he portrayed Michael Bakunin as clumsily clueless, vain, and self-centered—a rich man’s son who truly earned his reputation as a flip-flopper. He could be the G.O.P.’s nominee this year.
Voyage ran through January 29 at MST–Chelsea Market, but MST’s 99-seat home base at 2540 Times Blvd. in Rice Village hosts Shipwreck beginning February 10 and Salvage starting February 24. They will be performed in repertory through March 11. For tickets, visit mainstreettheater.com or call 713/524-6706.
• On February 27 there is a screening of The Captivating Star of Happiness, a 1975 Lenfilm historical drama sympathetic to the failed 1825 Decembrist uprising against Tsar Nicholas I. This event is free at MST–Rice Village at 7 p.m.
• On March 5, MST offers a poetry and philosophy night featuring the writings of Herzen, Belinsky, Bakunin, Pushkin, Turgenev, Gogol, and George Sand. The reading is free at MST–Rice Village at 7 p.m.
• Other events include MST’s post-show discussion series on Sunday afternoons through February 19, with artists and special guests. Visit mainstreettheater.com for current information.
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.