Few words are guaranteed to fuck up a family holiday more than “Mom? Dad? I'm gay!” In this West Coast premiere of playwright Eric R. Pfeffinger's wryly funny Where Men Are Empty Overcoats, it's Thanksgiving, and college student George Angell's parents react to his coming out with a barrage of shock, grief and disgust.
Michael Mallard's attractive, likable George makes for a sympathetic hero. He's a kind man who meets his parents' confused and even cruel behavior with warmth and generosity. Initially, Dad is the antagonist. When he first gets the news, he hides in the hallway closet—metaphor, you think?—refusing to speak. A month later, George is reading the biblical story of Jesus' birth aloud to the family on Christmas morning, but Dad sabotages the moment by pushing him to read anti-gay passages from Leviticus in place of the more loving Gospels.
Mom (a dippy, often laugh-out-loud Molly Dewane) enters the fray when the couple gives George a gift certificate to attend an “ex-gay” clinic run by a suspiciously flamboyant counselor (drolly played by Richard Comeau). When that doesn't work and George brings his lover home, Mom bluntly tells her son that she hates his boyfriend—not just because he's black but also because he's . . . a playwright.
Pfeffinger's play is highly theatrical—multiple locations, characters addressing the audience, blackouts, voice-overs and flashbacks—and requires an equally stylized staging. Sadly, the lethargy of Ian Downs' directorial vision shows little understanding of this conceit. The technical aspects compound matters: Downs' cramped set design prevents his ensemble actors from moving smoothly, and extended between-scenes blackouts completely botch any sense of pacing. The result is numerous winces from the audience as actors loudly crash into walls on the pitch-black set.
A lean, black-box production with limited set pieces and better-defined light design would allow the play to do its job: clearly showing us how, despite their best intentions, families trip over their prejudices and neuroses, opening dozens of their own little “closets” along the way. We should walk away with a touch of Pfeffinger's considerable empathy— resolved to cut people some slack, considering how less-than-perfect our own lives are—but the technical distractions of this labored, pedestrian production just won't let it happen.
WHERE MEN ARE EMPTY OVERCOATS AT THE CHANCE THEATRE, 5576 E. LA PALMA AVE., ANAHEIM HILLS, (714) 777-3033. FRI.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 2 P.M. THROUGH DEC. 24. $13-$15.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.