Sleeping with Straight Men

Ronnie Larsen
Above the Stag

Sleeping With Straight Men, Above the Stag
Amy Anzel as Jill Johnson, Adam Isdale as Lee and Wesley Dow as Stanley Credit: Derek Drescher

Actually there is only one straight man in this show (the characters that is, not the actors). The plural is a misnomer if you are looking for a titillating serial sex fest, but the title is certainly the fantasy of its leading character Stanley. He is a queeny gay guy still living with mum in Pontiac, Michigan, who works as a barman in the Flamingo Bar where he long idolised its drag star performer Sally and now operates her follow spot.

Stanley wants mum to move to California. “You, just want to go to San Francisco ‘cause you can’t find a boyfriend in Pontiac,” she says. She’s right. Now he gets another idea. Dining with “Sally” in a local restaurant he’s fallen for a dishy waiter, clearly straight, who served them in a local restaurant. Just because he gave them salads free Stanley thinks he’s made some connection, though everybody gets them free. There’s a TV programme that introduces people to the unsuspecting object of their crushes. He’ll go on the Jill Johnson Show and reveal to heterosexual Lee that he is his secret admirer.

There was a US programme that in 1995 did exactly that and this play is based on an event that actually happened—it is a world of exploitive “reality” TV that’s still with us.

Larsen takes a satirical swipe at the TV business by pitching us straight into a studio scene where Jill Johnson is recording a series of promo inserts. It’s a deliciously pointed performance as Amy Anzel’s Jill produces a range of contrasting saccharine sincerities suitable to each different subject, abetted by her producer Judy—another well-played performance from Hannah Vasty. In attendance is stylist and make-up man Brian, a fussy little Munchkin with a Tintin-style top-knot—Andrew Buckett makes him hilarious but no more over the top than the real thing is sometimes.

Back home in Pontiac, mum Julie is ironing shirts for Stanley. Julie Ross makes her sensible and level headed but Stan’s still her boy. Wesley Dow’s Stanley is a real screaming Nellie, A limousine for him is Cinderella’s coach and being in front of a television camera is being in heaven. Squirming on the studio sofa, he’s enough to make even the gays in the audience queasy if they weren’t finding him so funny. For the straight guy who’s expecting a female he seems like the faggot from hell.

Suitably good-looking Adam Isdale makes straight Lee an innocent; there’s no sign of embarrassment with gay customers—he’s too naïve to notice and too polite to react even in the studio—but for him they are an alien life form. He’s well partnered by Jill Regan, who’s charming as his rather brighter girlfriend Karen.

The Jill Johnson show is when this comedy turns into a drama with a tragic ending but the comedy too is dealing with series issues and director Paul Taylor-Mills makes sure it reinformces that. One of the delights of the piece is the way Sally’s act is used to bridge the scenes, singing an appropriate number for the context, celebratory or serious. It is an amazing performance from Martin Milnes in a sequence of designer David Shields’s fabulous frocks, but even more dazzling than the dresses is Mr Milnes’s delivery and his vocal range. He may not go as low as Chaliapin or even Yma Sumac but he can hit a high note as precisely any grand opera diva. Fantastic! Musical director Michael Baxter on the keyboards also makes a vital contribution.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton