The gay liberation movement may have started in earnest with the 1969 Stonewall riots, but homosexuality was still deemed a “curable” mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association in 1972 when a masked Dr. John E. Fryer addressed the annual APA conference as “Dr. H. Anonymous,” beginning his speech with the simple words “I am a homosexual. I am a psychiatrist.”
A year later homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Inspired by Fryer’s speech, psychiatrist/playwright Guy Fredrick Glass has written Doctor Anonymous, now getting its World Premiere at the Zephyr Theatre, and though several of its actors rise above the material, neither their performances nor a topnotch production design can mask Doctor Anonymous’s many serious flaws.
Clips from the now infamous 1967 CBS Reports episode entitled “The Homosexuals” set the scene, one eerily similar to recent news stories out of Russia and Africa, reminding us of a not-so-long-ago America in which gay men and women found themselves demonized by both mainstream media and the country as a whole, a reality reflected in clips from the then ongoing NBC comedy smash Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, whose homophobic one-liners now sting rather than zing.
Cut to the office of psychiatrist Dr. Edward (Barry Pearl), who has somehow, without hard evidence, determined that interviewee Dr. Matthew (Matt Crabtree) is gay. (Does the master shrink have psychic powers à la Johnny Carson as Carnac the Magnificent?)
Since no reputable clinic in the early 1970s would even consider hiring a mentally ill psychiatrist, Dr. Edward offers Dr. Matthew the option of so-called “conversion therapy,” and though initially resistant to the idea, Dr. Matthew soon decides that his professional future depends on becoming a practicing heterosexual (as if practicing were going to make him perfectly straight).
There’s only one hitch. Dr. Matthew has fallen in love with tall-glass-of-water Jake (Kevin Held), and the good gay doctor soon finds himself torn between his live-in lover and Dr. Edward’s insistence that he choose T&A over Jake’s more manly accoutrements.
Meanwhile, Dr. Matthew’s portly best friend (and fellow gay shrink) Dr. John (Christopher Frontiero) bemoans Dr. Matthew’s lack of interest in things operatic and his own lack of boyfriend, the latter soon rectified by the arrival of twinkie gay activist Andrew (Jonathan Torres), who soon decides that his and Dr. John’s mutual love of Verdi, Puccini, and Mozart trumps hooking up with hunky strangers for hot, wild sex. (As with Dr. Edward’s ESP, Andrew’s attraction to Dr. John comes seemingly out of nowhere.)
Completing the cast of characters is Dr. Matthew’s patient Dudek (Richard Sabine), so self-loathing a homosexual that that he nearly goes berserk when Dr. Matthew dares to suggest that he might try accepting himself and living an out-and-proud life.
Unfortunately for Dr. Matthew, just when he and Jake have gotten stripped down to their skin-tight boxers and are ready to further doff and boff atop Dr. Matthew’s office recliner, who should pop by but a horrified Dudek, a mistimed arrival destined to have devastating effects on our two young lovers.
It’s just about now that playwright Glass concocts a cruelly arbitrary plot twist from which a faltering Doctor Anonymous never recovers, though even without this ill-advised game-changer, Glass’s play continues to lose credibility all the way up to the climactic APA meeting in which the titular Dr. Anonymous makes his appearance en masque, though in Glass’s version of real-life events, Dr. Matthew tears off said mask to reveal his secret identity to the world—and to the cheers of his assembled fellow shrinks.
John Henry Davis directs for Gap In The Wall Productions, though a number of odd blocking choices, frequent tonal shifts, and some uneven performances give the impression that the Doctor Anonymous cast was left to fend for themselves.
Fortunately several actors emerge virtually unscathed.
Crabtree, one of L.A.’s brightest stage-and-screen talents, surmounts Glass’s script pretty much throughout, the authenticity and feeling he brings to Dr. Matthew going a long way towards making us believe in this confusingly written character.
Crabtree is very good in scenes opposite Broadway triple-threat Pearl, who once again does colorful, charismatic work as Dr. Edward. He is even better when paired with Held, an actor as talented as he is appealing, the duo’s palpable rapport drawing us into Dr. Matthew and Jake’s romantic ups-and-downs. (If only playwright Glass gave us more of the couple, and all the way through to the final fadeout.)
Other cast members do their best with the material they have been given. Dudek’s overwritten self-hatred requires Sabine to veer from high drama to comic relief and back again. Frontiero and Torres are given stereotypes rather than fully-developed characters to play, and it’s hard to buy that a single common point could lead the mismatched pair to serious coupledom. Still, all three supporting players have their fine moments.
Considerable behind-the-scenes talent helps bring Dr. Anonymous to the Zephyr Theatre stage. Producer Racquel Lehrman and associate producer Victoria Watson (of Theatre Planners) and casting director Michael Donovan, CSA, and his assistant Richie Ferris are as good as it gets, and the same can be said for Doctor Anonymous’s production design team.
Joel Daavid gets top marks for his ‘60s/‘70s-inspired scenic design (with shades of Laugh-In) and his effectively-conceived lighting design. Christopher Moscatiello’s sound design is a winner too, as are Troy Hauschild’s superb projection design and Shannon Kennedy’s nostalgically period costumes.
Joanne Couch is assistant director, Held is fight choreographer, and Laure James is production stage manager.
There is great potential for powerful theater in an authentically written, fact-based recreation of the life and times of Dr. John E. Fryer, whose speech as Dr. Anonymous may have saved the lives of countless gay men. Doctor Anonymous is, unfortunately, not that play.
Note: Understudies Kevin Scott Allen, Joe Langer, Nathan Mohebbi, Ryan O’Connor, Ryan Welsh, and Huntley Woods get their stab at Doctor Anonymous on Friday April 19 and Saturday April 20.
Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles.
March 30, 2014
Photos: Ed Krieger