What could happen when the two most powerful gay men in 1930s Hollywood bump into each other at a cocktail reception…and are joined by an outrageous and outspoken actress?
That’s the plausible premise of playwright Michael McKeever’s latest play, “The Code,” receiving its world premiere April 21 – May 8 at the Foundry in Wilton Manors.
Billy Haines, a gay man, was the most popular box office star of his era, while Henry Willson, was the deeply closeted gay agent who discovered Rock Hudson, Troy Donahue and Guy Madison and made them stars.
“I thought what fun it would be to put both of these men in one room and have them go at it,” said McKeever, a multiple Carbonell Award-winner whose plays have been produced Off Broadway and around the globe. “Haines was huge and lived outside of the closet, while Wilson was enormously self-loathing.”
The men would certainly have belonged to similar social and business circles and dealt with the same people, McKeever pointed out, but there is no documentation of them being together.
At a pre-dinner cocktail party, the men encounter brassy actress Tallulah Bankhead.
“She was brilliant and hysterical and I knew she would be a funny addition to the night,” he explained. “I found that she was incredibly insightful and heartbreaking at the same time. This was a woman who greeted strangers with, ‘I’m a lesbian and what do you do?’ She played any way that she could and, in some ways, she preferred women.”
After several years of fits and starts, the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting shutdown of theaters offered him the opportunity to finally finish the play. (He actually finished three plays during the pandemic — “since I had all the time in the world.”)
McKeever tapped industry veterans for the first production, including director Christopher Renshaw and Carbonell-winning actors Tom Wahl and Mia Matthews as Haines and Bankhead, respectively. And, the playwright will do double duty on stage as Willson. They are joined by Gabriell Salgado an up-and-coming young actor who arrives with Willson.
“Chris is a Tony-nominated director who I worked with two years back before the pandemic … He read the play and fell in love with it,” McKeever said, noting he understands his place on another director’s stage. “As an actor, that makes me a better playwright, and being a playwright makes me a better actor. As an actor in the play, I never fall back on also being the playwright. I take that hat off and take the notes from the director.”
Because the Foundry maintains an open season, “The Code” was able to be worked into the schedule on relatively short notice for the premiere, but McKeever expects other productions soon.
“It’s already gotten interest in New York,” he hinted, “but I don’t want to jinx anything. [This play] has so much potential and we’re having so much fun. Everybody involved appreciates the message about being true to yourself.”
Michael McKeever’s “The Code” will be presented April 21 – May 8 at the Foundry, 2306 N. Dixie Hwy. in Wilton Manors. Tickets start at $35 at RonnieLarsen.com.