Friday, January 27, 2023

Theatre Review: “The Code” A Riveting Portrait of Hollywood’s Tarnished Legacy

“This entire town is a cesspool.” On the spectrum of opening lines in Michael McKeever plays, this descriptive salvo spoken by Tallulah Bankhead in his new play “The Code” isn’t quite as, ahem, colorful as “Well, f—k me with a spoon,” from McKeever’s “Clark Gable Slept Here,” from 2014.

But, the town in question being Hollywood, California, the metaphor has the cynical sting of truth even before Bankhead builds her case. And it summarizes, with fine economy, the mixture of tart humor and righteous anger that powers the next 80 minutes, in a riveting world-premiere production at the Foundry in Wilton Manors.

The setting is 1950, in the stylishly appointed home of Billy Haines (Tom Wahl), a former matinee idol who left acting for a career in interior design for reasons that gradually, and painfully, make themselves known. In this modernist enclave—black-and-white checkerboard flooring, furnishings in sleek glass and stainless steel, martini glasses and canapés on the coffee table—Billy has invited his friend Bankhead (Mia Matthews) for cocktails before they head out for a dinner party at George Cukor’s estate.

It will be an eventful evening. Billy’s announcement that he and his longtime partner, Jimmie, are considering leaving Los Angeles to buy an apple farm in upstate New York throws Tallulah for a loop: “You’re the one thing in this town I don’t hate,” she says. But the real convulsions begin with the arrival of two more of Billy’s invited guests: unctuous agent Henry Wilson (McKeever) and his latest client, aspiring actor Chad Manford (Gabriell Salgado).

Chad, per Henry’s keen eye, has the look and charisma for Hollywood stardom. But there’s a problem. Like Billy, Chad prefers the company of men, specifically the artist with whom he lives. And to be gay in a movie industry policed by the Legion of Decency, the Hayes Code and the House Un-American Activities Committee is to be labeled a subversive, or worse, a deviant—with few prospects for furthering a career on the Silver Screen. Billy would know: He gave up his acting career because he wouldn’t leave his boyfriend and play the part of compliant heterosexual.

When Henry involves Billy in a scheme to spirit Chad’s partner out of the picture, “The Code” evolves into a fiery discourse on the crippling, go-along-to-get-along decorum of the closet—on the Faustian bargains so many LGBTQ actors struck to sacrifice personal happiness for professional attainment. That Henry is also gay renders him a cowardly hypocrite, the cess clogging up the pool. Bankhead, as is her wont, puts it best: “A town built by homosexuals will not acknowledge that they exist.”

As Billy, Wahl delivers another performance rich in nuance and restraint. As the character most on the right side of history, he embodies a confident stoic who is proud of his difficult decisions in life. But when his composure finally breaks in the play’s final moments, we feel his pain.

Matthews’ Bankhead, clad in a red, ballroom-ready gown designed by Tim Bowman, is a cutting wit and an irrepressible force of nature. Gifted with most of McKeever’s most wicked bon mots, Matthews ensures that all of them land, and adds plenty of her own louche comedy, as when she insouciantly kicks off her scarlet heels while collapsing onto Chad’s lap on the chaise lounge after having one (or four?) too many. In her finest moment, she laughs off a particularly hurtful insult, maintaining her dignity while revealing a rare chink in her glamorous armor.

Salgado, as a young thespian out of his league among these lions of industry, presents a bushy-tailed naivety at the way things really are in his chosen business, and whose paradigms shift every 10 minutes or so (“Wait … Cary Grant … is gay??”).

code
Michael McKeever and Gabriell Salgado in “The Code”

But the most breathtaking performance belongs to McKeever, whose smile has never before been laced with so much strychnine. A black-hearted Svengali, his character takes pride in his ability to mold his clients as a sculptor would a shapeless mass of clay, and he relishes this power imbalance with the Teflon confidence of a Mafia don. When McKeever expresses this influence with a stunning and predatory action of physical and sexual violence, it marks a pivot point in the play, from gossipy portrait of Hollywood’s Golden Age to scathing indictment of a place, a time and its mores, with a reach that extends all the way past Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein.

Director Christopher Renshaw’s hand works its invisible magic throughout: The pacing is marvelous, the tonal shifts handled with impeccable naturalism. Even moments of fourth-wall breakage, courtesy of Bankhead’s periodic monologues, work well here. At one point she grounds the play’s themes into the contemporary news cycle, though the resonance needs little spelling out.

Indeed, “The Code” technically could have been written 10 or 20 years ago, but its history lesson is now frightfully relevant again. Erasures of identity are still happening, if not, perhaps, in liberal Hollywood than in workplaces and schools. Unspoken in the pages of “The Code” is that the odious leaders of Florida’s Legislature would have found ideal cover in the National Legion of Decency.

“The Code” runs through May 8 at Ronnie Larsen Presents at the Foundry, 2306 N. Dixie Highway, Wilton Manors. Tickets cost $35-$50. Call 954/826-8790 or visit ronnielarsen.com.


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John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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