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Unzipped: The New Season at Theater LaB Houston

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By Donalevan Maines

Warren unzips his zipper. Brown just stares. Warren zips it back up, pauses, then zips it down again with great flair.
Brown: What are you showing me, Mr. Warren?
—from Tom Jacobsen’s play The Twentieth-Century Way

The premise of Tom Jacobsen’s play The Twentieth-Century Way is that, with zippers becoming popular around 1914, it became easier for gay men to unfasten their pants, giving quicker “access” to the family jewels.

“They’re calling it ‘the 20th century way,’” says Warren, explaining to the play’s other character, Brown, how the zipper, along with better personal hygiene, gave rise to more oral-sex encounters in public changing rooms.

The flurry of furtive couplings also established a rationale for some policemen to escape the pesky task of keeping people safe from violent crime in favor of entrapping defenseless gay men seeking momentary thrills in “public pissoirs.”

“Special Vice Officer” is engraved on the badge Warren hands Brown when he deputizes him in the cause. “I’m a cop!” beams Brown.

The Twentieth-Century Way will be presented November 18–22 as part of Theater LaB Houston’s 23rd season of scandalizing local audiences. But instead of operating out of a space in First Ward that producer Gerald LaBita’s parents once ran as a mom-and-pop grocery store, and following a few recent productions in several other venues around town, TLH is helping christen MATCH (Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston) at 3400 Main.

The Twentieth-Century Way is a production by The Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena, California. According to its website, “The Theatre @ Boston Court produces passionate, artist-driven theater that challenges both artist and audience. The Theatre @ Boston Court urges its artists to fearlessly and passionately pursue their unique voice and vision. Play selection encompasses a wide variety of genres (classics, musicals, and world premieres, with a special emphasis on nurturing playwrights and new play development) which are inherently theatrical, textually rich, and visually arresting.”

Charles McNulty, a critic at The Los Angeles Times, advises, “If I were an American playwright wanting an assured, smartly challenging staging of my latest play, I’d put Boston Court at the top of my wish list.”

Such was the case in 2010 when Jacobsen took his unproduced script of The Twentieth-Century Way to Boston Court’s co-artistic director, Michael Michetti. “It was very exciting to me because I felt like it was a good fit for our theater,” says Michetti. “Until I read Tom’s play, I didn’t know the history” of how the Long Beach (California) Police Department led the practice of entrapping members of Southern California’s secret gay community.

Jacobsen was inspired to write The Twentieth-Century Way after reading a brief account in Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons’ book Gay L.A. about how actors were recruited to lure gay men into exposing themselves in public places so they could be arrested for “social vagrancy.” The police department promised them $15 per arrest, or roughly $350 in today’s dollars.

“That’s a fortune!” says Brown.

“Tom started digging and unearthed tons of primary resources, such as newspaper articles and court transcripts from specific events,” says Michetti.

The result was a script in which actors Will Bradley and Robert Mammana portrayed two actors meeting for an audition, then morphing into a number of characters who rendered the storyline, explains Michetti, who directed the premiere.

In May, Boston Court’s co-production with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York City played off-Broadway, where LaBita saw it. “I was blown away,” says LaBita. “I thought it was a terrific piece of theater, just spectacular.”

Houston audiences will see Boston Court’s presentation in MATCH’s intimate 75-seat black-box space with the show’s original Equity cast and director.

“Will and Robert play all of the other characters—or is it Brown and Warren playing these parts?” teases Michetti. “The show never really makes this distinction clear. That turns out to be one of the most exciting aspects of the show, which is structured like a thriller with a sense of uncertainty and danger.”

Due to its nudity and mature subject matter, TLH recommends the production for adult audiences, says LaBita. “Neither Robert nor Will is LGBT, but both are very pro-LGBT rights, and obviously the play is gay-themed,” says Michetti.

TLH will launch its move to MATCH with the November 4–8 presentation of Eric Gutman in his one-man show From Broadway to Obscurity. In it, Gutman sings show tunes such as “Walk Like a Man” from Jersey Boys, which the Michigan-born actor/musician performed more than 1,100 times in six different roles, including three members of the Four Seasons. Gutman also relates his heartwarming decision to return to suburbia to raise his children, leaving behind the bright lights of Broadway.

Press material calls From Broadway to Obscurity “a one-man musical about getting to the top of your game, and the struggle to find your place when the game is over—making hard choices that are also the right ones.”

Next comes Eleanor’s Story: An American Girl in Hitler’s Germany in which Ingrid Garner will perform her adaptation of the autobiography of her grandmother Eleanor Ramrath Garner’s turbulent years as an American girl trapped in Nazi Germany. The hour-long show will be presented November 11–15.

In February 2016, TLH will return to producing its own shows, with the regional premiere of 52 Pickup by Canadian playwrights TJ Dawe and Rita Bozi. In it, 52 titles of scenes about a relationship are noted on an ordinary deck of playing cards; at the top of the show, the actors throw the cards into the air, then proceed to perform the scenes in the order in which they arbitrarily pick up the cards throughout the show.

The season will conclude in May with the world premiere of Winifred, which Alva Hascall wrote with Houston actress Tek Wilson in mind as a woman who helped gays and Jews escape Nazi Germany. The Maine playwright will direct, with Lisa Westkaemper serving as dramaturg and production manager for the show about a British orphan girl who was given in marriage to composer Richard Wagner’s gay son. Playing opposite Wilson will be a young actor who will portray various roles, including Winifred’s stage manager, her son Wieland, the prosecutor at her de-Nazification trial, her French maid, and others.

For season tickets or admission to individual performances, visit thelabhou.org for details. For additional information, call LaBita at 713.868.7516.

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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