Let's Just Get This All Out in the Open

Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

Try this on for size:

Your son-in-law--who is a playwright and director--announces that he's leaving your daughter because he's gay. Then he asks you to portray a gay-basher in his latest play. You'll have to take off most of your clothes for the role.

For many people, this turn of events might require a round of thrashing on a psychiatrist's couch--or in an afternoon talk show chair.

But Newell and Rosemary Alexander were delighted to play semi-nude gay-bashers (one of them still bashing, the other now repentant) in their son-in-law Del Shores' "Sordid Lives" at Theatre/Theater in Hollywood.

The Alexanders' daughter Kelley, 34, who is separated but not yet divorced from the 38-year-old Shores, said she was initially "appalled" at Shores' idea to cast her parents in these roles. "They'll never do it," she told him.

But the Alexanders are veteran actors. Newell was not about to give up his "best role ever," he recalled.

"We trust Del as a writer not to demean us," said Rosemary.

No, the play's title, "Sordid Lives," does not refer to this particular situation. The play reflects Shores' coming out as a gay man only indirectly. It's set not in L.A. but in Texas, like his previous plays "Daddy's Dyin'--Who's Got the Will?" "Cheatin' " and "Daughters of the Lone Star State."

In the new comedy, acclaimed in most of the reviews, the young man who finally comes out of the closet at a family funeral is an unmarried New York actor named Ty, not a married Hollywood TV producer like Shores (who's currently working on the new Scott Bakula series "Mr. & Mrs. Smith"). However, Ty's conversations with his mother are like those Shores had with his own mother last year after he told her the news.

By contrast, the characters played by Shores' in-laws could hardly be less like the real Newell and Rosemary Alexander.

Newell plays a bartender who years ago beat up drag queen Brother Boy, sending his victim into a mental hospital. During the second scene of "Sordid Lives," the bartender is forced to strip to his underpants and don a woman's turban and earrings--all part of a gun-toting sister's revenge for what he did to Brother Boy.

In the next scene, Rosemary plays a therapist in the mental hospital who takes her crusade to "de-homosexualize" Brother Boy so far that she tries to seduce him by stripping down to her lingerie. She went even further in the previews, taking off her bra (with her back turned to the audience), but now she keeps on the bra because, she said, "the audience stopped laughing" when she took it off.

Like Shores, the Alexanders were raised in Texas as Southern Baptists. This is the same denomination that recently decided to boycott Disney products and parks because of the company's gay-tolerant policies. Nevertheless, the Alexanders have led rather unconventional lives, they said, by way of explaining their ability to adapt to the changes in the life of their son-in-law and daughter.

They left unhappy marriages in Texas and moved to Hollywood, where they lived together for 14 years before getting married. In show business and in the fashion industry, which employed Rosemary in Texas, they became accustomed to working with gay men.

When the Alexanders were in the 1982 country and western musical "That Other Woman's Child" in L.A., daughter Kelley got a job as the show's house manager. That's where all three Alexanders met Shores, who was a roommate of one of the other actors. Rosemary recalls that a friend who was in the show told her, upon seeing Kelley and Shores together for the first time: "Rosemary, there's your son-in-law."

Meanwhile, Shores was also connecting professionally with the Alexanders. He showed them the script for his play "Cheatin'," which was inspired by the Texas comedies of the late Preston Jones (among them, "The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia"). There was a role in "Cheatin' " for Newell, and when it was produced in North Hollywood in 1984, Kelley served as stage manager.

This led to a 1985 Equity-contract production of the "Cheatin' " script in Kansas City, Mo., under a different title--"A Little Bit o' Lovin'," which the management requested in deference to conservative Midwestern sensibilities. ("I told Del that Preston Jones would never have allowed them to do that," Newell said.)

Although Shores was in the Kansas City cast, none of the Alexanders was. However, Shores and Kelley had discussed getting married, and Kelley missed Shores. So she flew to Kansas City to be with him. A week later, they were married, on Jan. 6, 1986.

Shores' father, a Southern Baptist minister, officiated. "Cheatin' " cast member Leslie Jordan--who plays Brother Boy in "Sordid Lives"--was, he recalls, "best man, bridesmaid, ring bearer and flower girl."

"We loved each other. We still do," Shores said recently of himself and Kelley.

Shores' career took off with the 1987-88 success of "Daddy's Dyin'," also at Theatre/Theater. There have been more than 400 productions of the play, plus a Hollywood movie version that Shores wrote. It brought Shores work in television. (To date, he's sold 17 pilot scripts, only one of which has been produced. But a gay-themed episode of the Fox sitcom "Ned and Stacey" that he wrote will be rerun on Monday.) Meanwhile, Kelley gave birth to two daughters, who are now 3 and 6.

Last year, however, Shores started an affair with a man--first via e-mail, then by telephone and, finally, in person. "He was changing his whole manner," Kelley recalls. She told her husband that he talked about this other man as if he were sexually attracted to him. But Shores denied it--until a week later, when he left his computer on, enabling Kelley to read some of the e-mail the men had written.

Once Shores acknowledged the truth to his wife, he began telling others--including their good friend Jordan, who has been out of the closet for years (and is currently starring in his own autobiographical "Lost in the Pershing Point Hotel" at Theatre/Theater on Thursdays, while also appearing in "Sordid Lives" in the same space on weekends). It was a shock. "I pride myself on my 'gaydar' [being able to spot gay men]," Jordan now says, "and [Shores] was one of my best friends, but I had no clue."

Kelley called her mother, who took the news well. But Shores was worried about Newell's reaction. Newell called back with warm, supportive words. Shores' own mother surprised him by saying that she had long wondered about his sexual orientation. His father was "very loving," Shores said, but told his son that he didn't want to talk about what had happened. While Shores' mother, a former drama teacher, plans to see "Sordid Lives," his father probably won't make the trip.

At first Shores wanted to keep the marriage together. But a month in therapy persuaded him that it wasn't a great idea. Now he and Kelley maintain separate homes within five minutes' driving distance of each other in Sherman Oaks.

Neither minimizes the pain of the breakup. "It was very, very hard," Shores said.

Yet Kelley and Shores sat comfortably next to each other in the front row at Theatre/Theater during an interview. Kelley says the changes have been "a rebirth" for her. Although she backed away from her original intention to produce "Sordid Lives," she is the producer of Jordan's "Pershing Point," so she's spending a lot of time at Theatre/Theater.

At the theater, the experience has been healing, all parties agreed. The laughter from the audience each night helps. Rosemary Alexander noted that members of "the clan"--the group behind these two plays--love each other and are allowed to do what they want in the relatively pressure-free 99-seat arena--"and it just doesn't get much better than that."

*

'SORDID LIVES," Theatre / Theater, 1713 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Dates: Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 and 7 p.m. Ends July 28. Prices: $15-$20. Phone: (213) 660-8587.

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