Through a Naked Lens
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 18, 2005
George Barthel's new play Through a Naked Lens is a classic Hollywood romance set in classic Hollywood (i.e., the silent film era). It's the epic love story of a beautiful rising young star of the cinema and a cynical but secretly romantic gossip columnist. The twist is that both lovers are men: Barthel is imagining an affair between Ramon Novarro, star of such movies as The Arab and Ben Hur, and Herbert Howe, a Photoplay writer who in his time was considered the best and perhaps the most powerful of Hollywood journalists. Barthel includes a conspicuous disclaimer in the program that says that this play is fictional—there's no evidence that such a love affair actually happened—which makes me wonder why this play bothers to use the names of real people for its characters at all; how many people nowadays know who Adela Rogers St. John, Rex Ingram, and Alice Terry are anyway? I think that a better choice would have been to create a complete fiction—this would have allowed Barthel to tell the gay melodrama he seems to want to tell, unhampered by the few well-known facts about these once-famous people.
The play begins at the offices of Photoplay, where we quickly meet hard-boiled Howe, his fellow writer Adela, his Walter Burns-ish boss Jim Quirk, and a tough, ambitious newcomer named Tracy who could just be a stand-in for Louella Parsons. Howe has just finished a big story on Rudolph Valentino, and he's ready to take a break; but the folks at MGM want him and only him for a big puff piece on their rising Valentino-competitor, Ramon Novarro. Herb agrees reluctantly, and the next thing we know he's on board a ship to Africa, where he will spend time with Ramon, director Rex Ingram, and Ingram's wife Alice Terry, who is to be Ramon's co-star in The Arab. On deck, Herb chats up Ramon and reveals to him that he shares his sexual proclivities (i.e., both men are gay); he invites him to his cabin, though at this point it feels like the come-on of a possibly deceitful reporter trying to get a scoop.
But apparently love blooms at first sight, because instantly Herb and Ramon are a couple. (This happens probably much too soon for the play's health, by the way; isn't courtship the sexiest and most interesting part of a romance?) The play then traces the progress of their relationship, which is obviously unsustainable in '20s Hollywood (probably would be today as well): Herb is jealous and resentful of how much time Ramon's filmmaking seems to take; Ramon experiences doubts while fulfilling his lifelong dream to play Ben Hur; the studio finally muscles in and forces the pair to break up. Barthel's choices here seem hemmed in by the fact of Novarro's fame—in the second act, particularly, I was aware that the more dramatically compelling story to tell would be Herb's, but the main plot conflicts all have to do with Ramon (though Novarro's career decline after talkies arrive isn't even alluded to).
Nevertheless, the play works on its own terms as a touching story of love and sacrifice. Co-directors Richard Bacon and L.J. Kleeman have cannily mounted the piece with lots of fun silent-film trappings, including flickering projections of authentic locales as backdrops for the scenes (everywhere from the African desert to the MGM lot to the offices of Photoplay Magazine; multimedia is by Jas McDonald and Bacon). The pacing is just right—brisk and breezy for the exposition, slower and lusher for the big romantic moments (including a somewhat sexually ambiguous one in which the presumably heterosexual Ingram commands Ramon to strip naked while he films him "practicing" to be Ben Hur).
Stephen Smith makes Howe into a credible leading man for this story, excelling particularly as the early Herb, before he falls in love. Unfortunately, Smith's co-star is in no way his equal—JoHary Ramos, diminutive and tentative, seems miscast as the sexy, robust, good-natured Novarro we can discern from clips, photos, and biography; at the performance reviewed he also frequently misspoke his lines. Smith's work suffers in scenes with Ramos as a result.
The supporting cast is also uneven: Raymond O. Wagner is terrific as L.B. Mayer and, in a delightful cameo, as an old-timer cameraman who shares some pivotal behind-the-scenes info with Herb; Laura Beth Wells crackles like a '30s film soubrette (think Eve Arden or the young Ginger Rogers) as Adela Rogers St. John; Tom Patterson gives us an interesting take on Irving Thalberg; and Heather Murdock is sophisticated, warm, and smart as Alice Terry (who emerges as the play's most likable character). Less successful, though, are Bacon as a too-tormented Ingram, Shay Coleman as Quirk, and Tracy M. Gaillard as the conniving young reporter, Tracy.
Production values are pretty impressive for a production of this type, including nifty costumes (particularly for the ladies) by co-director Kleeman and modest but effective sets by Wagner and Kleeman.
Through a Naked Lens joins previous Barthel plays like Channel Crossing and Richard and Philip as an entertaining entry in the genre of gay-themed romantic melodrama. I'd like to see Barthel and his collaborators push a little further to find deeper stories to tell; but for providing gay men of a certain age with the kind of divertissement they never could have had when they were growing up, work like this has a real niche to fill.