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Chest Fever

Nipples Offers Screwball Instead of Subtlety

(From left) Richard Goldberg, Julia Brandeberry, Lauren Ciarpella, and Jerry Gietka in Why Do Men Have Nipples?

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 8/15/2001

Why Do Men Have Nipples?

Ray Hamby

There are better plays than Ray Hamby's Why Do Men Have Nipples? in this summer's Baltimore Playwrights Festival, but his takes the prize for most attention-grabbing title. And the titillation doesn't stop there; this gay-themed play contains scenes with two gents clad only in their briefs and, briefly, nothing at all on the Vagabond Players' stage.

Just as that nude moment seems gratuitous in terms of the plot, this play has a pandering quality that makes it difficult to work up much concern for the more serious questions it wants to raise, about the consequences of a son coming out to his family. Described in the playbill as a "serious comedy," Nipples falls short on both counts.

Whether the coming-out story line is dated is a debatable point. On the one hand, such stories have long been a staple of gay literature and thus are something of a cliché by now; on the other hand, they can remain compelling in a society that still gets all riled up about same-sex relationships. Although Hamby's play is very predictable, it's a story that needs to be told in a state where gay-rights activists are fighting Christian fundamentalists.

Hamby steers clear of political headlines, but there are plenty of local references here. The play is set in a posh Guilford home in which a strait-laced, politically well-connected family is surprised to find a handsome sailor, Pete (Vic Cheswick), at their door. It turns out he knows their sailor son, Jack (Richard Goldberg), who arrives a little while later and simply explains that he and Pete are Navy buddies. Newly discharged, Pete and Jack aren't just here to relax. Jack has promised Pete he'll come out to his parents and introduce Pete as his lover, but Jack nervously keeps postponing the moment of truth.

Jack's father, Rupert (Jerry Gietka), sister, Jade (Lauren Ciarpella), and the family maid, Velma (Charlene Williams), wonder, to varying degrees, about the buddies' true relationship, but Jack's mom, Laurel (Julia Brandeberry), is oblivious. When Pete twirls Jack's mom around in a display of his ballroom-dancing skills, mom merely gushes about what a nice young man he is. Her gaydar's on the blink. Hamby gets some pretty good laughs at the expense of chatty, martini-guzzling, clueless Laurel, but it seems unlikely that even a Guilford matron would be so dense in 2001.

In any event, the family melodrama that ensues once the truth is revealed occasionally touches the heart despite much formulaic dialogue and hyperactive performances that would be more at home in a screwball comedy. Hamby's play admittedly has its screwy aspects, but the material deserves more nuanced acting than it generally receives.

The only actor who delivers an understated performance also gives the best one. As Velma, Williams comes up with wonderfully dry line readings. When Jack's teenage sister asks for a Coke, the maid says "I'm serving lemonade today" with such devastating finality that it gets one of the show's biggest laughs. Think of it as a good actor taking scripted lemons and making lemonade.

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