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Review: In Playwrights’ Arena’s ‘Billy Boy,’ sexual inclinations collide with religion

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Nick Salamone and Rachel Sorsa in “Billy Boy.”
(Playwrights’ Arena)

Playwright Nick Salamone has been a risk-taker for 25 years and counting, perhaps most noted for loosely autobiographical plays that treat his Catholic upbringing as a primary theme.

Salamone’s “Billy Boy,” a premiere by Playwrights’ Arena at Atwater Village Theatre, is no exception.

As in Salamone’s past works, the gay male protagonist in “Billy Boy” struggles to reconcile his sexual inclinations with his religious indoctrination — a divide not easily bridged. The new play may lack the tragic sweep of, say, “The Sonneteer,” Salamone’s Miller-esque sprawl about the ramifications of a closeted life, but it has the immediacy of a diary entry and a mounting mysteriousness that defies expectations.

Christopher Scott Murillo’s stark bedroom set is the fittingly purgatorial milieu where the regretful Michael (played by Salamone) confronts the great loves of his past.

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In the opening scene, we witness a combustible sexual interlude between Michael and his old high school girlfriend Emma (Rachel Sorsa). It’s a playful exchange that segues into the serious, as Emma bitterly upbraids Michael for deserting her decades previously, when she needed him most.

Scene 2 introduces David (Matt Pascua), the love of Michael’s life, also abandoned by Michael at a critical juncture. Long before Scene 3, when Michael’s mother (also played by Sorsa) scolds her young son for his cruelty at a dire passage in her life, we have begun to suspect that we have ventured into familiar Salamone terrain, where things aren’t quite as they seem and familiar landmarks blur into the bizarre.

The director is Jon Lawrence Rivera, Salamone’s longtime collaborator and the founding artistic director of Playwrights’ Arena, which champions Los Angeles playwrights such as Salamone. Rivera delivers a luminous staging, mooring his cast in a bracing naturalism that emphasizes the piece’s inherent mystery. His solidly capable actors are so matter-of-fact that they catch us completely off-guard for this journey into the unexpected.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

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‘Billy Boy’

Where: Playwrights’ Arena at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, 8:30 p.m. Mondays, plus 8:30 p.m. Oct. 13; ends Oct. 15

Tickets: $25-$30

Info: (800) 838-3006, www.playwrightsarena.org

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

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