Anita Byrant, the hate-spewing orange juice spokeswoman whose crusade against gay rights caused a brief public spectacle in the late 1970s, is the closest thing to an arch-villain the gay community has.
So when Buffalo United Artists announced some months ago that it would produce the local premiere of a play called "Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins," some expected a harsh, possibly camp-laden takedown of Bryant's virulent views about the rights of gay men and women.
As it turns out, Bryant's brand of gay-bashing merely serves as a backdrop and an occasional accent mark in this charming but wobbly coming-of-age drama, which opened Jan. 21 in the Buffalo United Artists Theatre.
The play, by Brian Christopher Williams, transports us into a small Adirondack town in the early 1970s. We get a sense of that time and place from a clever intro, which mixes newsreel-style announcements performed by Wendy Hall and J.R. Finan with bits of introductory material performed by the play's narrator and protagonist, 15-year-old Horace Poore (Justin Ryan). We soon meet the entire Poore family, including Horace's overbearing mother Etta (Caitlin Coleman) and unsentimental father Myron (Timothy Patrick Finnegan), along with his beloved, rebellious older brother, Chaz (Matthew Nerber).
As the Vietnam War rages on, Chaz's lottery number comes up and he high-tails it to Canada to dodge the draft. This throws the family into a kind of tumult, which only worsens with the advent of the energy crisis and accompanying economic downturn, which causes both parents to lose their jobs. And all the while, the studious, impossibly good-natured Horace wrestles with his sexuality, which takes form in a budding crush on the mustachioed Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz. That love affair turns real when he discovers that his new gym teacher (John Kaczorowski) is a dead ringer for Spitz. All of this sets Horace and his family up for a rocky coming-out.
Williams has made a valiant and at points successful attempt to evoke the joys and frustrations of growing up gay in a small town before the era of AIDS. The charm of the script -- thanks to excellent performances by Ryan and the rest of this gifted cast and Chris Kelly's ever-savvy direction -- can't help but shine through.
But Williams wastes no opportunity to remind us of the play's setting, saturating us with hackneyed talk about the energy crisis and other issues of the day. Even the presence of Bryant (Hall) -- relevant as she is to Horace's coming-out -- approaches gimmickry. And -- spoiler alert -- he goes too far by setting up an unbelievable tryst between the gym teacher and Horace's developmentally challenged next-door neighbor Agnes (Marie Costa), whose presence is distracting and largely unnecessary.
Like "The Wonder Years" or "That '70s Show," "Anita Bryant" is triple-wrapped in nostalgia -- and indeed that's part of its charm. But it lacks the succinct dramatic structure and the tight writing that made the self-indulgence of those half-hour programs bearable and forgivable.
Even so, we get tremendously moving and often laugh-out-loud funny performances from Ryan, who exudes a mischevious confidence that's impossible not to like. Coleman and Kaczorowski are at their mugging and hilarious best as Horace's gun-toting mother and his idealized love interest. And the appealing Finnegan's return to the BUA stage couldn't be better timed.
The ensemble also benefits from the wise and innovative direction of Kelly, who dresses up a sometimes overwrought script with perfect little moments of revelation -- and the odd mini-dance sequence -- which cut through the fat of Williams' writing and into the heart of his intentions.
"Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins"
3 stars (out of 4)
WHEN: Through Feb. 12
WHERE: Buffalo United Artists Theatre, 119 Chippewa St.
TICKETS: $15 to $23
INFO: 886-9239 or www.buffalobua.org