Comfortable with her spiritual beliefs, Wheeler admits to being leery of born-again evangelicals and others "in the flock." Such ambivalence gives the playwright the ideal vantage to scrutinize the "ex-gay movement" of Christian groups to cure homosexuality.
In its world-premiere production at 7 Stages, Wizzer Pizzer revels in the comic possibilities of its timely subject, turns gender politics topsy-turvy and offers something sexy for every orientation.
Yet Wheeler packs so many jokes, themes and characters into Wizzer Pizzer, the play resembles an overstuffed closet that opens and emits a noisy, colorful avalanche.
Disaffected drag queen Kevin (Topher Payne) suffers an identity crisis after his disastrous attempt to perform "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" at a gay club. Adding insult to injury, his best friend, Kandi (Scott Turner Schofield), brings down the house with her drag-king rendition of Garth Brooks' "Friends in Low Places" that same night.
Wallowing in booze and self-pity, Kevin complains that he's a walking gay stereotype, with a predictably fabulous sense of style but no feeling of passion or belonging. He happens to catch a late-night broadcast of "Dr. Nora" (Susan V. Booth), a Dr. Laura-esque tough-love therapist and founder of the "Getting Over the Rainbow" Reparative Therapy Clinic. Soon, Kevin finds himself inexplicably outside the clinic's gate, where Dr. Nora's minions attempt to straighten him out.
Wizzer Pizzer's sharpest segments depict the prayer sessions and therapeutic exercises meant to help misguided gays get in touch with their inner breeder. All-American couple Steve (Charlie Burnett) and Helen (Alison Hastings) run the clinic as former homosexuals-turned-wholesome spouses. Helen instructs the butch gals to put on makeup while Steve teaches the effete guys to suppress their desires during wrestling holds.
Steve and Helen's nuclear family is on the verge of a meltdown. They both teeter at the brink of gay "relapse," while their children, tomboy Blaine (Mary Claire Dunn) and "sissy" Gable (Brian Crawford), serve as living proof that homosexuality comes from nature, not nurture. Meanwhile, Kevin grows even more confused when Kandi shows up at the clinic - only she claims to be a man named Jack. The implications for Kevin and Kandi's relationship, let alone for cross-dressing role-play, become impossible to sort out.
Melissa Foulger directs Wizzer Pizzer's young actors to their strengths. An Atlanta playwright, Payne captures Kevin's esteem issues to find humor and occasional pathos, whether badly lip-synching to Judy Garland or attempting to impersonate a typically macho straight guy.
Schofield, duded up in cowboy gear and Western suits, gives Kandi a sly swagger reminiscent of Madonna's quote following a k.d. lang concert: "Elvis is alive." Schofield also grounds the role in a sensitivity that goes beyond preening caricature. (It's tricky picking the right pronoun for Schofield: The transgendered actor was until recently Atlanta-based actress and performance artistKt Kilborn.)
A delicious inside joke lies in the casting of Dr. Nora. Alliance Theatre artistic director Susan Booth plays a scolding Voice of Authority in video projection and voice-over but never appears in the flesh. Like a Bible-thumping Martha Stewart, Booth gives Dr. Nora an amusing tone of testy self-righteousness. In one video interlude, Dr. Nora reveals a kinky side by pouring misplaced sexuality into a cooking demonstration: "The secret to a good meringue is in the whipping!"
Despite such comedic inspiration, Wizzer Pizzer's world premiere production feels like the kind of draft in which the playwright tosses all possible ideas onto the stage to see which one sticks. The action and tone keep switching, from ambisexual bedroom farce to surreal journey of self-discovery to after-school special about childhood gay identity. Blurring the line between dream and reality, the play gives its characters perplexing alter egos: Burnett also struts as a glammed-up club emcee, while Hastings sizzles as a bisexual femme fatale.
The play's second half proves increasingly vague and repetitious. The persistent Wizard of Oz references muddy the play's meanings. Near the end, characters contemplate murder while Jesus appears doing bad stand-up: "Take my life - please!" Like the disconnected images from somebody else's weird dream, Wizzer Pizzer all but spins to pieces.
Wizzer Pizzer forcefully punctures religious hypocrisy and the misuse of Jesus' teachings. The play speaks directly to the national brouhaha over gay marriage, but yet may not contain a spiritual message deeper than the hardly controversial "believe in yourself." Wizzer Pizzer could be circling an idea that "choice" neither applies to religious faith nor romantic feelings: You can't force physical attraction any more than you can spiritual devotion. Somewhere along the way, though, Wizzer Pizzer gets lost on the Yellow Brick Road.
When will you be accepting applicants for the 2014 competition?
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