Looking for Billy Haines
nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
March 20, 2010
Looking for Billy Haines: that's exactly what the audience is doing when watching this undercooked romantic comedy. The moment the charismatic title character is found, Looking for Billy Haines would do well to keep him center stage. Instead, it wastes time with a wan "modern love story" about a struggling actor and his closeted boyfriend that pales in comparison to Billy Haines's own life. Haines was a dashing movie star who was openly gay, defying the Hollywood status quo of the 1920s and 30s. As shown in the play, when forced by MGM to choose between his lover and stardom, Billy chose love... and walked away from fame.
Billy's story is heartbreaking and courageous, but very little of it actually comes through here. More stage time is devoted to Jamie, an earnest young actor auditioning for the role of Jimmie, Haines's partner, in an upcoming Haines biopic. Jamie tells us his own story in direct address—relating his dreams and nightmares, introducing his wacky roommates, and showing us his problematic relationship with Harlan, his very handsome but very closeted boyfriend.
It could be fun, it could be fascinating. It could be another variation on life imitating art imitating life. As written and directed by Suzanne Brockmann, however, the play doesn't deliver on its promise. Billy Haines is an elegant cipher, but he gets lost amid a collection of underwritten characters. Jamie is awfully earnest but little else. His roommates, with their cardboard neuroses, resemble rejected character sketches from Friends. Structurally, the play's constant shifting from direct address to dream sequence to objectivity feels clumsy. The overly literal scene transitions, when the actors needlessly move tables, chairs, and a sofa to suggest various locales, don't help.
Fortunately, there's Joseph Cullinane's buoyant tap-dance choreography to liven thing up (even if sudden transitions into dance don't always make aesthetic sense here). Cullinane, who also plays Billy Haines, has created some elegant moments, particularly the balletic duets for Billy and Jamie, and the jaunty street scenes with Billy and the passers-by.
Cullinane steals the show as Billy, making the most of a limited role by giving Billy real grace and charm. Seeing him leap across the stage like Fred Astaire, it makes you wish the play had more use for him. As Lynn, Jamie's most grounded roommate, Apolonia Davalos also manages to make gold out of dross. She radiates unexpected warmth, and her fiercely committed acting conjures empathy out of nowhere.
As Alan, a stockbroker-turned-would-be-actor and self-help guru, Eric Ruben shows comic range, while Annie Kerins displays fine timing as Sugar, the neurotic roommate. Jason Michael Butler ably realizes the conflicted Harlan. Jason T. Gaffney has a certain sweetness and vulnerability as central character Jamie Hollis, but he doesn't have the skill to add layers that aren't there.
Maybe Looking for Billy Haines will develop more depth with another production. In the meantime, if you're looking for a compelling story about the forgotten screen icon of the title, keep looking.