'House of the Rising Son'

Any community worthy of the name needs a history; with a history come ghosts and, inevitably, ghost stories.

Any community worthy of the name needs a history; with a history come ghosts and, inevitably, ghost stories. African-Americans have “Beloved” and “Gem of the Ocean,” the Irish J.M. Synge and Conor McPherson. But the gay community, publicly uncloseted for barely 50 years, is late in bringing its paranormal yarns to the campfire. Tom Jacobson takes a giant step forward with his engrossing, provocative “House of the Rising Son” — note the spelling. It’s nothing less than a comprehensive homosexual ecology that kicks off in a graveyard and ends in a bed: life engagingly turned upside down.

With all this talk of camp and cemeteries, we must be in New Orleans, but not before a UCLA-based prologue introduces nervous, thirtyish researcher into parasites Dr. Trent Varro (Paul Witten) and studly young folklorist Felix (Steve Coombs). Pheromones are exchanged before phone numbers, a late-night fence-hopping Hollywood crypt tour ending in an open plot for some faire l’amour.

Quicker’n you can say “Mardi Gras,” they’re winging back to spooky N’Awlins to meet the fam’bly between repasts of begniers and chicory. The Varro manse is a glorious Southern Gothic mess in the hands of designer Richard Hoover, mixing ghastly and chic furnishings in a splash of garish taste across a three-quarter thrust, pieces even dangling in midair like the handiwork of a gay poltergeist.

The inhabitants are every bit as topsy-turvy. Felix is intrigued by Trent’s intelligence and shy allure, but disgusted grandpere Bowen (Rod Menzies, alternating with Nicholas Hormann) seems to be vying for a Nobel Prize in unreconstructed homophobia. (He makes the boy’s hygiene a conversation gambit.) Amiable dad Garrett (Patrick John Hurley) is evidently the family peacekeeper, but isn’t he the spitting image of the spirit Felix spotted near Bette Davis’ gravesite at Forest Lawn?

You’ll have guessed things are not what they seem chez Varro, but anyone who spoils it for you should be punished by a cold, clammy hand on his shoulder at midnight. Suffice it to say while the trappings are Addams Family, the truth as it emerges is deadly serious, with implications extending far beyond Felix and the Varros.

Jacobson is working out some sophisticated ideas here, on such topics as old-school gay life vs. post-Stonewall openness and the entire homo/hetero dynamic. But the cast never pushes the metaphorical elements, playing the action in earnest and for high stakes.

Maintaining a deft balance between flamboyance and poignancy is a second-nature task for helmer Michael Michetti, who seems to crank out beautifully paced and structured pieces as naturally as breathing. No one in town casts better, either.

Coombs exudes needy sexuality while successfully controlling the play’s normal center, and Menzies offers a gripping, unforgettable study in sad senescence. Bowen’s at the point where amusing quips become alarming lapses; you can read the genuine panic in his eyes as he feels his self slipping away.

Witten and Hurley get less colorful material but are no less forcefully present. So too are the various locations, sculpted in light by the peerless Jeremy Pivnick and supported by Bruno Louchouarn’s moody sound design.

Trent and Steve’s professions are perhaps too tidily chosen for Jacobson’s thematic purposes, and tantalizing hints of Tennessee Williams’ Delta sojourn and the house’s notorious brothel past could be fleshed out. But these are quibbles in a work of substance and whimsy, horror and humor in equal measure.

The world premiere Jacobson plays sharing a wall at the Atwater Village complex are interestingly opposed. “The Chinese Massacre (Annotated)” (see review, page 11) wears its research on its sleeve but feels contrived throughout. “House of the Rising Son” is wholly constructed out of imagination, while containing not a single truthless moment.

House of the Rising Son

Atwater Village Theater; 97 seats; $25 top

Production

An Ensemble Studio Theater-L.A. presentation of a play in two acts by Tom Jacobson. Directed by Michael Michetti.

Creative

Sets, Richard Hoover; costumes, Christina Haatainen Jones; lighting, Jeremy Pivnick; sound, Bruno Louchouarn; stage manager, Nicole Rossi. Opened, reviewed April 23, 2011. Runs through May 29. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast

Dr. Trent Varro/Maureen - Paul Witten
Felix Martin/Tod - Steve Coombs
Garrett Varro/Lendell - Patrick John Hurley
Bowen Varro/Robert - Rod Menzies/ Nicholas Hormann

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