NEW YORK — Actor Ron Vawter thinks of Roy Cohn and Jack Smith as chameleons: men who changed the color of their skin to avoid being eaten.
Cohn was a powerful right-wing lawyer who rose to prominence as the hatchet man for Joseph McCarthy, the redbaiting U.S. senator who bullied the political Establishment in the '50s. Smith was a performance artist whose 1962 avant-garde film "Flaming Creatures" featured cavorting drag queens. But what made these two "chameleons" vulnerable was their homosexuality. And as a diptych of their respective colorations, Vawter's solo show "Roy Cohn/Jack Smith," which opens at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art on Thursday for a four-week run, is a meditation on the pathology of self-hate.
"I did this as a cautionary tale," said the 43-year-old Vawter recently, in a mid-town Manhattan restaurant, drinking margaritas and drumming on a pack of cigarettes. "It's a warning both to gays and to society at large. On the one hand, if gays hide their true feelings, either by being closeted or being flamboyant to the extreme, they'll stunt their full human potential. And if society insists on repressing homosexuals, they will give rise to monsters."
The openly gay New York actor describes the work--which he began developing two years ago and which was performed last winter in Ohio, Minnesota and New York--as "a comedy of repression." The humor is largely ironic. In the first 40-minute section, Vawter takes the stage as Cohn, nattily dressed in a burgundy dinner jacket to deliver an after-dinner speech to the American Society for the Protection of the Family. Both the speech (written by novelist and playwright Gary Indiana) and the organization are fictional. But the dramatization is based on an incident recounted by Cohn's chauffeur in the Nicholas Von Hoffman biography "Citizen Cohn." In the late '70s, the chauffeur apparently drove the lawyer and his male lover to a conservative fund-raiser where Cohn delivered a blistering attack against gay rights. Then the couple went off to Studio 54, the popular dance palace steeped in drugs and sexual ambiguity.
Cohn's homophobic harangues of the first act--"The people of this country don't want to hear about Adam and Steve's honeymoon!"--are balanced in the second with Jack Smith's adulatory odes to Maria Montez and denunciations of underground filmmaking as "the French Foreign Legion of Interior Decorators."
The mystifying text is drawn largely from "What's Underground About Marshmallows?" Smith's 1981 performance work. Cohn's dinner jacket is doffed in favor of Salome-like veils, Pharaonic ropes and bands of jewelry and glitter makeup. Reclining amid a junk pile of Ali Baba tinsel, Vawter, as a seemingly stoned-out Smith, fusses with script pages while in the background we see slides of him squiring a stuffed penguin around Amsterdam. The lush strains of music from B-movie melodramas swells and ebbs between his cryptic declamations: "Olive sun was blazing in the cream-cheese sky."
On their own, these back-to-back sketches are fascinating studies of how the public personas of these men were effectively shaped by their private proclivities. Adding resonance to the portraits is the fact that both were eventually to die of complications of AIDS--Cohn in 1986, Smith in 1989. Vawter, who himself recently learned he has AIDS, observed that while the manner of their deaths ultimately united these polar opposites, he purposely set the play just before AIDS cast its pall over the homosexual community.
"I wanted to expose something which I felt was just as destructive to homosexuals," Vawter said. "AIDS and repression are two separate malignancies, but because the virus has loomed so large over the last 10 years, I wanted to remind people that there have long been other forces at work leading to another kind of death--a spiritual death."
Vawter said he was suffering from an identity crisis when he found a redemption of sorts in the avant-garde theater of the early '70s.
Born into a highly conservative Catholic military family in Albany, N.Y., Vawter initially pursued a military career. Planning to become a chaplain for the Green Berets, he was put on reserve status while he studied for the Franciscan priesthood for four years, where he said he first encountered homosexuality among both the priests and the candidates. Sexually confused, he left the seminary and became an Army recruiting officer in Manhattan. The route to his office led him past the Performing Garage, an experimental theater collective that would evolove into the Wooster Group, out of which emerged such talents as Spalding Gray and Willem Dafoe.
Attending performances there was an eye-opening experience for Vawter. He found the improvisational work "liberating and exciting," he said, and he soon left the military to work with the group, first in administration and then as an actor.