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Stepping Out in Play About Gay Life : Theater: Dan Butler, who portrays a sportscaster on ‘Frasier,’ uses 14 vignettes to weave together the one-man show ‘The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me.’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Don’t tell Dan Butler that his one-man show is brave. He has heard it before, and he doesn’t buy it.

“This is not a courageous thing,” insists the actor, whose autobiographically inspired “The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me” has been playing to sold-out audiences at Theatre Geo in Hollywood. The piece, which consists of 14 vignettes connected by a theme of homosexuality--and in particular, his parents’ coming to terms with their son’s homosexuality--is Butler’s attempt, he says, “at processing my life, what being gay means.”

The show also offers an interesting balance to Butler’s ongoing role on NBC’s hit series “Frasier,” on which he plays macho radio sportscaster Bob (Bulldog) Briscoe. “When I read the part, they had this funny, quirky, angry bit--over the top, maniacally heterosexual,” says the actor, who recently signed a four-year contract with the show’s producers. “I have a ball with the character. Bulldog is also a nice counterpoint to Frasier and the rest of the intelligentsia who come around.”

Between “Frasier” and his own show, Butler, 39, had time last winter to squeeze in a role in the upcoming Nick Nolte/Julia Roberts suspenser “I Love Trouble” in which, he admits, his Armani-clad CEO character represents a “major plot point.” Butler’s other big-screen credits include “Longtime Companion” and “The Silence of the Lambs” (“I was one of the bug scientists,” he reminds, “the comic relief”), and on the small screen, guest spots on “Picket Fences,” “Life Goes On” and a previous recurring role on “Roseanne.”

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Growing up in Fort Wayne, Ind., Butler remembers being drawn to the theater at an early age, making his debut in a local production of “The Music Man” at age 7. As an adult, he has worked onstage at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre and Trinity Square in Providence, R.I. His Los Angeles stage debut came in the Mark Taper Forum’s 1990 production of “The Lisbon Traviata” (he got stabbed by Richard Thomas at the end of that one). Since 1992, Butler has been one of the artistic directors at the Road Theatre in Van Nuys, where he appeared in “Why Things Burn” and “Vig,” and directed last season’s well-received premiere of “The Walkers.”

“When I came out here from New York, I had no idea I’d stay,” the actor allows. “But it’s been a really creative time.”

In his solo show, there is a delicate line that Butler traverses: As he slides in and out of accents and characters, it’s not always clear which of the stories are his own. “I drift through all the pieces,” he acknowledges. “But specifically, no. There should be mystery.”

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Either way, the voices are compelling, from Leslie (a garrulous Southern actor whom Butler befriended while volunteering at Project Angel Food), to a gay man standing up to name-callers, to Butler’s own parents. Ironically, the portrait of his mother--accompanied by cue cards--is one of the show’s most amusing; his father’s words are the most devastating.

“They’re not designed as indictments,” emphasizes the actor, who lives in Silver Lake. As for exposing his own pain, “I never had this experience of clarity that this was something I had to do,” he says. “I’m deeply grateful that the show affects people, and there is a certain feeling that what I have to say makes a difference. So I’m glad these stories mean something, that they make people think. But I don’t want it to be a ‘gay’ show.”

In spite of that disclaimer, it’s inevitable that reviewers have signaled this production as Butler’s theatrical “coming out.” Still, if there has been any career fallout, he has yet to notice--or care.

“I’m an actor,” he says bluntly. “Our responsibility as artists is to challenge ourselves. It’s also fun to show off the talents I’ve been given. But the real thing is, I’ve never felt as fulfilled as an artist. I’m saying my own words, talking about my life in a personal way. This is what I wanted to do, what I needed to do, what I’m supposed to do. And it’s part of growing up.”

* “The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me,” Theatre Geo, 1229 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood, Mondays and Tuesdays, 8 p.m., through June 21. $15; (213) 466-1767.


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