(front row, left to right:) Wagner, Smith, Ramos, Murdock, Bacon & Patterson
(back row:) Gaillard, Wells, Coleman, Pepe & Shaigany, photo by Joseph R. Saporito
Wings Theatre Company, founded in 1986 by Artistic Director Jeffery Corrick, is currently presenting Through A Naked Lens, a compelling new play by George Barthel, concerning the love of silent film star Ramˇn Novarro and Photoplay magazine journalist Herbert Howe. Blending fact and conjecture, Barthel depicts actor and writer in a fiery, but ill-fated romance, and the major struggles for influence over the former that affect them, in a play “crowded with incident,” to borrow a phrase from Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell.
With the defection of Rudolph Valentino, Metro-Goldwin-Mayer (MGM), the motion picture studio, is grooming Novarro to be his successor and Howe covers his blossoming career for Photoplay, then helps shape the career, becoming involved with the handsome actor personally, as his lover, and professionally, as his publicist. When Howe at least temporarily succeeds in breaking down Novarro’s resistance, working through his scruples about “sin” and fear that their being seen together too often will cause gossip and ruin his reputation in Hollywood, the resultant love scenes, between JoHary Ramos and Stephen Smith, ingratiating as protagonists Novarro and Howe respectively, as directed by Richard Bacon and L.J. Kleeman, are steamy indeed.
The first external tug-of-war Howe faces for his love is with director Rex Ingram, a complex character, forcefully played by the drama’s co-director, Bacon. As Novarro’s “Svengali,” who has brought him and his own wife, actress Alice Terry, sympathetically portrayed by Heather Murdock, to Tunisia to film The Arab on location, Ingram keeps his stars on short leashes, working them hours long enough effectively to keep Novarro and Howe apart; drilling them on dialogue to which lip-readers alone will be privy; and warning his divo, when he would snack on a scone, “Remember, audiences don’t buy tickets to see pudgy leading men.” Ingram and Novarro aspire to work on Ben Hur , a pinnacle, which the latter considers his calling, his religious “ mission.” The next bravura “incident,” following hard on the heels of Ramos and Smith’s first hot encounter, comes when word arrives that Ben Hur is to be made, but with a different director and star, and Bacon’s Ingram throws a tantrum of epic proportion. When the fights, of Howe with Ingram and Howe with Novarro, become physical, they, as choreographed by Kymberli E. Morris, sizzle as well.
The balance of power shifts several times. Ramos’ Novarro excitedly announces to Smith’s Howe, “Pack your bags—we’re leaving for Rome. They want me to play Ben Hur” after all, but Ingram, not similarly summoned, renounces Hollywood. Work on Ben Hur proves grueling. Novarro is injured while filming a chariot race and wants to quit, but, with coaching from Ingram—still, as we see in a scene that no doubt influenced the choice of title for the play, a most potent figure for him--learns how to handle his stance and his horses and returns to work.
The articles about Novarro that erstwhile hard-boiled reporter Howe submits to Adela Rogers St. Johns (Laura Beth Wells) and Jim Quirk (Shay Coleman) for Photoplay read like love letters. Although MGM’s Louis B. Mayer (Raymond O. Wagner, who worked with Kleeman on sets) and Irving Thalberg (Tom Patterson) agree that Novarro needs the positive publicity, they worry that fans will read between the lines and topple the vulnerable matinee idol and want Howe out of his life. Howe’s five-part paean to Novarro, the biography and travel journal “On the Road with Ramon,” for Motion Picture magazine, will be his last about his love. The climactic scenes, showing Ramos’ Novarro, Smith’s Howe, Bacon’s Ingram and Murdock’s Terry’s growth and change, take place, significantly, on the day of Valentino’s funeral in August 1926.
Tracy M. Gaillard makes an Eve Harrington figure of a disgruntled junior reporter for Photoplay. Joe Pepe has moments of glory as “Lon,” an Arabic gofer, giving a priceless horrified look when he sees Howe and Novarro in embrace, and as Eason, who chews Novarro out after his chariot overturns during the Ben Hur filming. Sheila Shaigany, doubling as a sheik’s slinky wife with acting ambition and a Hollywood makeup woman, completes the cast.
Kleeman devised the Prohibition Era street clothes and movie costumes and Jas McDonald and Bacon, the silent film-style title cards and show of period stills and newsreel clips. Lighting is by Sean Linehan and music by Brad Howell Houghton.
On Wings’ agenda this season are also Frawley Becker’s Tiger By The Tail, a prison story, from March 24-April 22; Clint Jefferies and Michael Calderwood’s Fangs, The Vampire Musical, April 28-May 27; Robert Mitchell’s Frankenstein, The Musical, July 7-August 5; and David Velarde’s Autumn Moon Legacy, a rock musical thriller, from August 11-September 2.
Wings Theatre, 154 Christopher Street, through December 23 & January 2-21, Mon, Thurs, Fri & Sat at 8 pm, Sun at 3:30 pm
Tickets $19 or TDF, 212/627-2961 or http://www.wingstheatre.com