Theater Review - Jim Grimsley's Mr. Universe pumps up theatrical decadence

Grimsley's play about gay culture remains provocative 25 years after its debut

In the mid-1980s, then-aspiring Atlanta playwright Jim Grimsley envisioned a pumped-up bodybuilder disrobing in the street, interrupting a conversation between a pair of drag queens. That imaginary collision of Mr. Muscles and Miss Thang ricocheted across decades of Atlanta theater as Grimsley's play Mr. Universe.

Set in the sleaziest corner of the French Quarter, the dark comedy's preening protagonists first emerged in 7 Stages' 1987 world premiere production. Mr. Universe became a cornerstone work for the avant-garde playhouse, marked a turning point in Atlanta theater's treatment of gay issues and boosted Grimsley's writing career.

7 Stages remounted Mr. Universe in 1991 to help launch Grimsley's play Belle Ives and now has brought it back for a third time. Mr. Universe remains a knotty, provocative work about people who scoff at assimilating into the mainstream. But in 2011, it also seems less transgressive than nostalgic. Today, the context of its debut proves nearly as intriguing as the bad behavior on stage.

Grimsley completed the play in 1986 while performing in 7 Stages' production of Sam Shepard's The Tooth of Crime. Mr. Universe first came to light at post-production readings. A year later, the play became the inaugural production at 7 Stages' new playhouse on Euclid Avenue. "The theater was thriving and the vibe was hopeful, but it was a risky move. 7 Stages didn't own the building at the time, and the rent was huge," says Grimsley.

The play's first cast drew from a tight-knit group of theater artists, including actress/playwright Rebecca Ranson, actress Donna Biscoe and 7 Stages artistic director Del Hamilton, who played Vick. "I think that was a time when we'd been together long enough to do something really special," Grimsley recalls. "Mr. Universe had a definitely edgy quality, partly because of the sexuality of the play, and because drag queens were the focus of the action, for a change."

Mr. Universe takes place in the 1970s, but avoids dated references. "It's my memory of gay sexuality before AIDS, what people called 'The Party,'" says Grimsley. "Everything in the gay literary universe is either before AIDS or after AIDS. Back then, gay men didn't talk about relationships, they talked about sex. A long-term relationship lasted a week."

Cross-dressing barflies Vick and Judy (played in the current show by Doyle Reynolds and Don Finney, respectively) behave more like cellmates than an ostensibly committed couple. A drug user and pusher, Judy initially resembles Divine in Diana Ross drag, with a temper to match. Vick sports sparkly evening gowns and strives to maintain the poise of a hostess. When Judy picks a bar fight, the melee leaves Vick a filthy mess, which tells you all you need to know about their relationship. They're an unstable couple even before they encounter the beefed-up mystery man.

Brian Kirchner's enigmatic muscle man seems incapable of speech but frequently draws incisions across his oversized pecs and abs. He can only communicate through flexing and posing, which, in Kirchner's performance, seems more like a defense display than a show of force. The drag queens bring him to their fleabag apartment to dress his wounds. The physically perfect yet vulnerable stranger brings out parental instincts in Vick, who has a son from a failed marriage, and predatory appetites in Judy. In the second act, Judy schemes like a Shakespearean villain to seduce and rape the stranger.

Throughout the 1980s, gay plays gradually became a force in American theater: Mr. Universe followed not long after the New York debuts of Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy and Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart. "There was gay theater in Atlanta, but it wasn't like it is now," says Grimsley. "It started to pick up with Mr. Universe and other Atlanta productions. Between then and now, gay-themed theater has become one of the mainstays of theater — it can economically support theater." While tragic AIDS patients and wisecracking gay best friends were becoming theatrical clichés, Mr. Universe unflinchingly presented a rapacious and unrepentant homosexual character with Judy.

Only four years after its 1987 debut, Mr. Universe's first remount seemed almost conventional. "It was a much safer environment to do the play — and it made me feel like I was in the middle of a pretty decent writing career. By then, I was publishing novels and felt like I had a much bigger name," says Grimsley. "It was a beautiful production, but it didn't have the same magic for me. In 1987, it was the first time I'd had a hit." Currently, Grimsley directs Emory University's creative writing program and has published multiple novels, including his book Dream Boy, which has been adapted for stage and screen.

Grimsley finds that the new production feels darker than the earlier ones, and points out that Hamilton cast older actors as Vick and Judy than the playwright imagined. Both pushing middle age, the roles seem more desperate now. Mr. Universe begins with saxophonist Syl Spann performing a kind of overture of New Orleans tunes such as "Do You Know What It Means (To Miss New Orleans)." Fans of HBO's "Treme" will appreciate the way Spann's bluesy approach sounds more like bebop than Dixieland, distinguishing the play's setting from "Big Easy" clichés.

Viewed today, Mr. Universe embraces some shopworn ideas, particularly a mentally addled neighbor (Yvonne Singh) who speaks to her dead husband's ghost and feels like a stereotype of a holy fool. Promiscuous Katie Jume (Tara Ochs) embodies a kind of feral feminine sexuality, as a counterpoint to Vick and Judy's simulations of female charisma. But the role never clicks in the current production. Hamilton obviously knows the material and Ochs is a talented, funny actress, but Katie never reveals the emotional complexity to justify her seemingly endless presence on stage. She's like a party guest who won't leave.

Mr. Universe now comes across as time capsule twice over. It offers a seedy snapshot of New Orleans' urban decadence, like Berlin in the 1930s, that would sneer at the idea of family-friendly tourism. And it's far less politically correct than the homosexual-themed plays of the 1990s, which took pains to assert gay normalcy in everyday society. Mr. Universe might be older, but it remains untamed.

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