Dream Boy Helps Usher In a New Era for Queer Theater
Dream Boy, a haunting play about forbidden gay love in the rural South in the 1970s, now making its Los Angeles premiere, deals with life-changing events for its protagonists — and it changed the life of playwright Eric Rosen too.
“It gave me the courage to choose a life in the theater,” says Rosen, who adapted the play from Jim Grimsley’s acclaimed 1995 novel. He was in graduate school at the time and thought he was bound for a career in academia, but the show’s reception opened another path to him.
Dream Boy is something of a landmark in the life of L.A.’s Celebration Theatre as well. The production, which runs through March 20, is the second show of Celebration’s first season in its new venue, the Lex Theatre, after the 34-year-old LGBT company had been homeless for more than a year due to a steep rent increase at its previous space. The intimate Lex is on the same block as the L.A. LGBT Center’s Village at Ed Gould Plaza, making for a gay theater row in Hollywood.
Celebration opened the season last fall with Robert O’Hara’s raucous semibiographical comedy Bootycandy, about growing up black and gay, and will close it with The Boy From Oz, the musical about gay entertainer Peter Allen. In between is the poignant Dream Boy, in which Nathan, a teenage newcomer to a small North Carolina town, falls for boy-next-door Roy, and they must hide their relationship from their friends and especially Nathan’s hyper-religious family.
“We were looking for shows that were really engaging but had theatrical magic,” says Michael Matthews, who is co–artistic director of Celebration with Michael Shepperd, and also the director of Dream Boy. The play, with its ambiguous, dreamlike conclusion, certainly qualifies.
Grimsley’s novel worked some magic on Rosen back in 1995, when he was a graduate student in performance studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. A friend gave him the book for his birthday, and he read it in one day. “The material really spoke to me,” he recalls. The next day, it turned out, Grimsley was giving a reading at a bookstore in Chicago. Rosen went, met the author, and got his blessing to adapt the novel for the stage.
In 1996, Dream Boy became the first production mounted by the LGBT-focused About Face Theatre, a Chicago company cofounded by Rosen. The company brought it back for a bigger production in 1998, and it has been staged in other cities, including Atlanta. “It really put About Face on the map,” Rosen says.
And instead of becoming a professor, Rosen became a theater professional. He was artistic director at About Face until 2008, when he joined the Kansas City Repertory Theatre in Kansas City, Mo., as its artistic director. He’s still there, and KC Rep will stage his latest play, a metafictional murder mystery titled Lot’s Wife, in April and May as part of the Origin KC: New Works Festival.
“Dream Boy really changed my life,” Rosen says today. Comparing it to his other works, he says, “It feels like my first love. There are special things about it that I’ve never been able to replicate in any other play.”
Now it’s part of what looks to be a successful first season for Celebration at the Lex. Featuring relative newcomers Matthew Boehm and Randall Ray Clute as Nathan and Roy, respectively, along with several L.A. stage veterans, it’s earned positive reviews. And the previous production, Bootycandy, has been nominated for four awards by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, including Best Production and Best Featured Performance, the latter by Shepperd. Also, the critics group will honor Matthews with the Milton Katselas Award for career achievement in directing. The awards will be presented March 14.
It addition to mounting its own productions, Celebration is once again hosting the popular 30 Minute Musicals, parodies of well-known films. This month Top Gun gets the 30 Minute Musicals treatment, which promises to bring the Tom Cruise movie’s homoeroticism to the fore.
Photos courtesy of Matthew Brian Denman.