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09/20/2011

'8' it up: Maggie was in mezzanine, on-stage, seared in audience's consciousness

by Jeremy Hooper

As you might have already heard per Andy Towle's thorough report and visual illustrations, NOM's Maggie Gallagher actually showed up last night at the Eugene O'Neill Theater and watched a cast of actors play out the Prop 8 trial. If not, go check out what Andy had to say:

Screen Shot 2011-09-20 At 8.01.01 Am


Anti-Gay NOM Activist Maggie Gallagher Attends Staged Broadway Benefit for Team Challenging Proposition 8 [Towle]

I'm not sure if Maggie knew she'd be a character in the show. I suspect she did, and in fact delighted in it. But I do have to wonder if, like me, Maggie's on-stage characterization provided her in-seat persona with one of the night's biggest takeaways. Here's what I mean.

Most of the on-stage actors were names. Many of these name actors are strong characters themselves, with mannerisms, vocal patterns, or what-have-yas that ring familiar bells within the audience's minds. So when someone like the charmingly comedic Rob Reiner got up to read as proponent witness David Blankenhorn, sure the audience was laughing at some of Blankehorn's more ridiculous claims (the play was almost exclusively culled from the trial transcripts). Or when the nothing-if-not-resonant Morgan Freeman read a David Boies line, sure those words connected simply because the words themselves are pure. However, in many cases, the actual words' effects and/or takeaways were buoyed by the performance itself. The trained actors, having their own strong personas, were able to shorthand some of the moments for the audience. Ted Olson's closing monologue, powerful on its own, certainly got an extra boost because of the audience's familiarity with John Lithgow.

The Maggie character was a different story. Jayne Houdyshell is a terrific actress and much appreciated in Broadway circles, but she's not a household name or persona. In fact, Houdyshell was probably the least known of those on stage. So with that characterization, the above-stated notion was flipped. Meaning: The Maggie character was much more "famous" than the actor embodying her.

So why do I say the Maggie character gave me one of the night's biggest takeaways? Well, because the first genuine laugh line of the night -- like a big belly laugh that rolled through both the orchestra and mezzanine -- came courtesy of Houdyshell's Maggie. It was in that character's first scene, a reproduction of a cable news debate between Gallagher and Freedom to Marry's Evan Wolfson (portrayed on stage by Larry Kramer). When Campbell Brown (in the role of cable news anchor) announced the name "Maggie Gallagher," I heard a few titters, surely from people who are well versed in all that she has said and done in the name of bias. But then the laugh really came on just a few seconds later, when -- either by direction, actor choice, or just happy accident -- Houdyshell had her Maggie start talking before Brown was done giving her intro. The audience roared at the familiarity of that, because it's exactly what Maggie always does in TV debates: She steamrolls right over whomever she's facing, making her points regardless of punditry decorum. I suspect that's why the audience uproariously laughed in the way that they did: Because even the less politically informed still had a passing familiarity with Maggie and her style.

Now again, Maggie probably took all of this as validation for her work. For all I know, the NOM chair might frame the Playbill, considering her Broadway debut to be the thing of great camp. But for me, the Maggie character and the audience's instant reaction to her, served as great validation for all of the years of pushback we on the pro-equality side have done to get the word out. Playwright Dustin Lance Black even used some of those truly nasty quotes from Maggie's syndicated column (like the one where she called homosexuality "at a minimum, a sexual dysfunction much as impotence or infertility"), which is a testament to those of us who've dug up such nuggets and refused to let them die. It's precisely because so many of us have honed in on her work, giving America the great insight that they might not have gleaned on their own, that even laypeople have the sort of knowledge that lets them understand the true depth and breadth of Maggie's anti-equality actions. Because of her decades of lifestyle choices that go against LGBT human beings, she has become a prominent character in the real life (in)equality play -- a casting that serves our side quite well!

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