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'Cleaning Man' Airs Hudson's Dirty Laundry

Stage Light

September 30, 1999|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Leave it to Michael Holmes, artistic director of Action/Reaction Theatre Company, to dig up an obscure corner of cultural history that turns out, against all odds, to be exciting theater. In the past, Holmes fashioned a drama out of the life of a little-known American painter, Ryder, and recently adapted the increasingly obscure author Maeterlinck.

Now, with a distinctly mysterious and tantalizingly open-ended docudrama titled "The Cleaning Man," at the company's Chandler Studio, Holmes has made a play directly from the transcribed text of the deposition given by Rock Hudson's housecleaner, John Dobbs. It was contained in a lawsuit filed by Hudson's scorned lover, Mark Christian, against the Hudson estate.

Perhaps only director Holmes could have adapted this material as a play, both for the fact that his friendship with Dobbs--himself a frustrated actor--offered him insight into the fellow that few others could have, and that upon cleaning up Dobbs' home after his death, Holmes stumbled upon the deposition text. Holmes waited until he had the right actor to play Dobbs, and he has found him in company regular John Beckman.

This is essentially a three-way dialogue between Dobbs and attorneys Donald Zakarin (Joseph M. Hoffman) for the estate and Harold Rhoden (Carlos Garcia) for Christian.

Greg Yarber's Christian, Ray Merritt's estate conservator Mark Miller and Joan Crosby as the court reporter are virtually mute bystanders. "The Cleaning Man" shows the banality of any court deposition, as well as the spectacularly melodramatic and hostile warfare of emotions that raged between Hudson and those around him.

Holmes cleverly uses Dobbs as a sad-sack vehicle, perhaps the humblest and poorest of all those involved in a nasty case, to plumb a murky landscape of betrayals, half-truths, jealousies and the poisons unique to celebrity lifestyle.

A preface and epilogue written by Holmes and spoken by Beckman's Dobbs establish the cleaning man as a kindly sort loyal to Hudson and angry at both sides in the estate war. Dobbs, though, is finally a sad, openly eccentric man whose loyalties seemed to provide no real reward and who never fulfilled his dreams. In between, he's badgered and cajoled by the lawyers to prop or knock down the other side's claims.

Christian demanded money from the estate he felt was owed him for being infected with HIV while Hudson failed to inform him of his disease. Dobbs explains that he initially felt that Christian had a case, but that now he feels neutral, since the estate has treated all concerned in good faith.

Under the legalistic surface that gives this play an unnerving you-are-there quality with little of the typically contrived antics of courtroom dramas, Dobbs slowly unravels emotionally as his own motives, and even health, are brought into question. It leaves open the question if he himself had an affair with Hudson. Beckman's performance is astonishing in its muted subtlety and ability to make real an actual character nearly nobody knew.

Garcia is a bit rote, while Hoffman has the lawyer's sense of "gotcha" down cold, but Beckman dominates here--even making us imagine the little dog this odd man keeps in a shoulder bag.

BE THERE

"The Cleaning Man," Chandler Studio, 12443 Chandler Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 4 p.m. Ends Oct. 30. $10-$15. (818) 908-4094. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

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