In the world of camp, heterosexuality has always been the biggest joke of all. The Charles Busches of the theater may wear dresses, but it is the foibles and quirks of straight lovers that they invariably offer up for sacrifice on the altar of parody. In his first play, “Straight-Jacket,” TV writer Richard Day (“Mad About You,” “The Larry Sanders Show”) expands on that limited subject matter and directs more than a few of his barbs at gays as well.
He tackles promising material: Set in 1955, “Straight-Jacket” concerns Guy Stone (John Littlefield), a Rock Hudson type who is forced to marry a studio secretary, Sally (Carrie Preston), to cover up his homosexuality and land the role of his career, Ben-Hur. Day certainly knows how to write effective zingers, but none too gradually the overriding poignancy of his story works against the comedy. Maybe Everett Quinton should have been cast as Sally, with Lola Pashalinski going into the Guy role. There’s a reason nontraditional casting is de rigueur when it comes to camp. The pathetic can only be turned into the ridiculous when the sexes switch clothes.
Actually, the “Straight-Jacket” cast is one of this production’s biggest assets. Day, who also directs, has found game players for his comedy. Littlefield brings movie-star superficiality to new depths. As his mercenary manager, Jackie Hoffman has the face of Margaret Hamilton and the delivery of Eve Arden. Day gives her his best wisecracks, and Hoffman knows just what to do with them. In supporting roles, Mal Z. Lawrence as a Jewish mogul who passes for Italian, Ron Mathews as a revolving door of interchangeable studs and Stevie Ray Dallimore’s pinko leading man also score. Most crucial, Preston offers a credible impersonation of a woman playing a man playing a woman. She and Hoffman are much aided by Gail Brassard’s stylish, witty costumes. Ray Recht’s two-turntable set is also a wonder, providing a dizzying number of scenic changes.
But a strange thing happens in the middle of the first act. While Day & Co. work hard to lampoon Guy Stone’s unsuspecting bride, the rest of us may find Sally’s sad situation worthy of our sympathy. She redecorates the house with much enthusiasm and tries to remodel her recalcitrant husband with absolutely no success. The perfect Hollywood hostess, she even entertains on the Wurlitzer, singing an amusing ditty, “Two Kinds of Love” by Stephen Edwards, that is more telling than she ever suspects. For a moment, Preston’s over-the-top antics on the keyboard almost, but not quite, dispel the play’s misogynist tone.
More problematic is the act-two love affair between Guy and a left-leaning screenwriter, Rick (Adam Greer), who may be the right guy for Guy but definitely not Mr. Right for this play. If Day is going to savage Sally, he also has got to offer up his sweet Rick for more than a few laughs. A fine actor, Greer has no choice here but to play it straight, and his character’s sincerity fatally restricts the comedy of “Straight-Jacket.”