Preaching to the converted
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Following the inspirational lead of Jeff Sessions - who bears a striking resemblance to Leslie Jordan - I feel a duty to recuse myself from future reviews of the Del Shores oeuvre.
"Six Characters in Search of a Play," his one-man show that wrapped up a short, hot-selling run at the New Conservatory Theatre Center this past weekend, was my second encounter with Shores' sentimental, country-fried camp. The first was a years-ago VHS screening of his signature work, "Sordid Lives," in the common room of a Provincetown guesthouse owned by two devastatingly handsome, Barbie-collecting Brazilian men. The film's highlight, for me, was the hypnotic motion of my hosts' laugh-convulsed abs. Otherwise, nada.
At NCTC, I felt a similar disconnection with both the material and the audience, whose laughter and post-show chatter indicated immense enjoyment. I'm willing to accept that this show may just not be my cup - uh, Mason jar - of sweet tea. But as long as we're here, there are other concerns worth mentioning.
Shores, bless his heart, is a skilled purveyor of a very specific sort of comedy. Drawing on a Texas Baptist upbringing and extended family of eccentrics - including Crayola-cosmeticized Aunt Bobby Sue and legless Uncle Humpty, both of whom make appearances in "Six Characters" - he specializes in writing broad, buffoonish characters, gilded with a cloying touch of honey-gold tenderness. If you're a gay man with southern or religious roots and an abiding affection for your kin, you'll get it.
In his films, plays, and the "Sordid Lives" television series, these over-the-top folks are played by first-rate character actors, like Rue McClanahan and the aforementioned Leslie Jordan, a fan-favorite in his recurring role as the cross-dressing Brother Boy.
If that aforementioning didn't ring a bell for you, you'd likely have joined me in feeling alienated at "Six Characters." Shores opened the evening with an explanation that we were about to see a sextet of yarns about people he'd met who'd inspired his imagination but hadn't yet been transformed into characters in one of his films or plays.
Yet throughout the evening, Shores consistently frames his anecdotes by noting that such-and-such relative of his was the inspiration for such-and-such character in "A Very Sordid Christmas," or that so-and-so was the actress who played whozawhat in his play "Yellow." He was preaching to the converted, and heathens like me were left in a contextual desert.
There are some chuckle-worthy bits: a waitress, Yvonne, who insists her name is properly pronounced "Why-vonne"; intimate autograph sessions that find Shores applying his Sharpie to mammoth bosoms and a micropenis; a handgun-harvested dinner of fried squirrel.
The whole "Six Characters" conceit is pretty much abandoned from the get-go, Shores' title more a winky Pirandello joke than an accurate description of the show. Five of his stories, told primarily in the third person rather than as character monologues, focus as much on the author himself as his purported inspirations, and in the sixth, he plays a latently gay redneck unexpectedly smitten with Channing Tatum (pronounced "Tater," hardy-har!).
Clearly built for Shores' existing fan-base, "Six Characters" is not so much a fully crafted theater piece as a career byproduct, the well-educated cousin of a meet-and-greet. Part storytelling, part stand-up, and a couple of overserious mood-lit monologues, it provides aficionados of Shores' past work with the opportunity to peek behind the scenes and into his creative process.
Shores is a warm and charming raconteur, though he does lean a bit too hard on his status as a "minor celebrity in the gay community." And if he continues to make work set in the "Sordid" universe without creating access points for new audiences, that's what he'll likely remain. As for to your humble reviewer, I stand recused.