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It's a Transgender Thing
Beau Bridges and Co. explore how a sex change affects everyday souls in 'Looking for Normal.'

       In 1932, Lloyd Bridges used to court his sweetheart at the Monday-afternoon socials at the Masons Lodge in Westwood.  Nearly 70 years later, Lloyd's son Beau sits with his son Jordan on a couch just a few feet from the courtyard where those genteel dances took place.  They're talking about sex change operations.
       Times have changed.
       In the ensuing half a century, the Masons Lodge became a theater.  Lloyd married Dorothy Simpson, the girl at the dance.  She became known to her children as the General, while Lloyd became known to a generation of TV viewers as Mike Nelson in "Sea Hunt."
       About the time little Beau was performing in the TV western "Gunsmoke," Swedish doctors were performing the world's first sex change operations.  In the decades that followed, gender dysphoria became an officially recognized medical condition.  These days, the transgender community enjoys unprecedented visibility, spawning stand-up comedians like Eddie Izzard, award-winning feature films including "Boys Don't Cry" and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," and documentaries such as this year's Sundance prizewinner "Southern Comfort."  Add to the transgender buzz list a new play by Jane Anderson, "Looking for Normal," which makes its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse on Wednesday.
       Beau Bridges plays Roy, a middle-class, middle American facing a doozy of a midlife crisis: He's a woman trapped in a man's body, and he wants to get out.  Laurie Metcalf portrays wife Irma, with Jordan Bridges as Roy's son Wayne.  The three cast mates are ensconced in a conference room at the Geffen for a pre-rehearsal chat.
       Beau Bridges, fueled by a jumbo cup of coffee, has clearly been doing a lot of thinking about the project: "When people hear transgender or transsexual or transvestite, they think it's all about some wild new way that they can have their sexual experience, when in the end it has a lot less to do with sexual appetite or preference, and more to do with your soul.  This husband and wife, yes, they're two separate people, but their souls bonded years before.  My character maybe cannot pull off the sex change; he may end his life if he cannot do it with his mate because, like all of us, he needs acceptance, he needs love.  If you don't have that, then what's the use?"
       Metcalf's character has to cope with Roy's bombshell decision to become a woman.  She realizes Irma's journey might be a tough sell.  "We want to show what audience members, if they were in Irma's position, would have to deal with and make sure we cover it realistically, in baby steps, so that they also can go to the next step with Irma.  Because otherwise, people would just dig in their heels and say, 'No way! I can't get past the premise.'  This is a hard play [for an audience member] to substitute, "Well, if my husband ... no, wait, if my husband ... no, I can't go there!"' Metcalf says.  "You can't substitute somebody you know because it's unrelatable to 99.9% of us."
       Metcalf, who recently finished her second full season on the sitcom "Norm," is best known to the uninitiated as the loopy sister Jackie on TV's "Roseanne."  But this actress' actress also appeared in such films as "Desperately Seeking Susan," 'Internal Affairs" and "JFK."  And some theatergoers may remember her Obie-winning star turn in "Balm in Gilead" and other edgy plays when she was an active member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater.
       When the F-word is mentioned -- 'ferocity' -- Metcalf says, "See?" glancing dubiously at Bridges, as if her go-for-the-throat tendencies have been a topic of discussion at rehearsals.  But isn't having a strong attack onstage a virtue?  "Well, I don't know," Metcalf replies.  "I have to work against it."  Roy and Irma are, after all, taciturn Midwesterners uncomfortable with emotional fireworks.
       "I think Jane sees the characters as, actually, slow to anger, and in a confused state for a long time, which, you know, I tend to go right to the anger," Metcalf laughs.  "It's been hard."
       Beau Bridges faces an even more substantial stretch.  Consider the analogy he uses to explain his character's coming out.
       "When you first present yourself to someone you want to romance, you present yourself in a way you think is cool so they'll respond in a positive way," he says.  "If that person opens the door to you and you become friends or lovers or husband and wife, then there's a time where you finally come out, and you say, 'Well you know, I gotta tell you that I wanna watch every single one of the March Madness collegiate basketball games'" -- Metcalf and Jordan start giggling -- "'and I don't care if it ticks you off.  That's the way it's gonna be.' "
       "Or," Bridges pauses, "'I want to have a sex change.'"
       Metcalf, laughing, interjects, "Wait, wait, wait -- the scales are a little off."  But Bridges is in full "hear me out" mode: "What it all comes down to -- those are extremes -- but what it comes down to is, we usually don't come out as who we really are until it's a little safer, till you know somebody cares for you, loves you and maybe will be more supportive when you actually tell them what your needs and desires are."
       Jordan Bridges, 27, admits it's strange watching his dad get into character.  "Seeing my father going through this transformation, wearing the [high-heeled] shoes -- well, being his son [in real life] is a benefit.  It lets me start from a natural place.  My dad is a very kind of mannish man.  Seeing the Lakers play is like a big deal to him, so the concept of him going through a sex change is . . . so beyond, it's really hard to wrap my mind around some sort of alternate bizarro world where that would happen.  I can't even really put my head around it, at all.  Which is great, because Wayne cannot either."
       When Beau Bridges decided to take on "Looking for Normal," he tracked down a transgendered writer, Melanie Anne Phillips, via the Internet and met with her to better understand the experience.
       Playwright Anderson happened across her "Looking for Normal" muse 12 years ago while boarding an airplane.  "I was at the Burbank airport getting ready to get on, and I saw this businesswoman in a skirt and a little suit top, and she had a little briefcase, and she looked very conservative and a little matronly and she was' -- Anderson suddenly drops her voice an octave -- 'talking on the phone like this."
       Speaking again in her normal voice, Anderson recalls, "I said a little prayer. 'Oh, please put that person next to me on the flight.'  And she was.
       "I had my computer, and she was in the computer industry so we talked computers.  I was staring at her, trying to figure out was she really ... ?  I looked for an Adam's apple, checked out the size of her hands -- she had the smoothest skin.  And then as we were taking off I started to white-knuckle my seat and [she was sympathetic].  She said 'Yeah, I was in the Air Force once ....'  So I struck up a kind of friendship with this person and really learned a lot about it from her."
       By the time Anderson met the man-turned-woman, she'd already begun toying with the idea of a play about transgendered relationships.  "I suppose my initial impulse, was, being gay, I wanted to explore what that mysterious thing is that defines our sexuality and ultimately our gender.  As the work matured over the years, it really became about what defines love," she says.  "When you love another human being, are you loving the physical body, the spiritual body, the mental body, their wit?  What piece do you love the most and what is important?  And if the physical body is changed, are you capable of still loving that person?"
       Anderson punctuates her narrative with interludes describing exactly what happens to which organs during a sex-change operation.  "It kind of makes you want to cross your legs," Anderson says drolly.  Clinical details aside, Anderson believes transgender experience resonates deeply on a metaphorical level.  "It's very relatable in that human beings, especially Americans, are fascinated with gender.  People tend to get rattled when they can't figure out if someone is gay or straight, a man or a woman.  A lot of people can't understand bisexuals because they can't pin them down.
       "Gender feeds into that, and I think whenever transgender issues are brought up, everybody wants to know about it because they can't believe somebody would want to change sex.  It's a fascinating topic because of our basic insecurity with our own gender and what defines it."
       Like Bridges, Anderson feels the transsexual dilemma raises important spiritual issues.  To address some of those themes, she created the Rev. Muncie, a character who struggles to counsel Roy and Irma.  "I didn't want to be your typical liberal lesbian playwright and bash the church," Anderson says.  "I always like to find the other side of someone's argument.  As confused and erudite and full of himself as he is, I wanted to make the pastor a sympathetic character."
       Anderson, whose previous film and television work includes "The Baby Dance," 'How to Make an American Quilt" and "If These Walls Could Talk 2," became acquainted with Bridges in 1993 when he appeared in her cable TV movie "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom."  When it came time to cast "Normal," Anderson says, she and director Ron Lagomarsino knew they needed the transgendered character to be played by someone who was "infinitely accessible, someone the audience can relate to.  We put our heads together and thought Beau would be a wonderful choice.  I wanted a comfortable guy's guy, and Beau has the ability to play an everyman.  He has such a warmth, you just want to hug the guy."
       Bridges, 59, has indeed established himself as an avuncular if sometimes subversive presence over the course of nearly 100 films and TV movies.  He famously played the pudgy keyboard partner to brother Jeff's handsome lounge pianist in "The Fabulous Baker Boys," and more recently portrayed the brilliant scalawag P.T. Barnum in the 1999 Emmy-nominated miniseries.
       But earlier in his career, Bridges performed in experimental off-Broadway pieces and played a hellion in the controversial Vietnam saga "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine" at the Mark Taper Forum in 1970.  "Normal," he says, affords him an opportunity to again explore unfamiliar terrain and, even sweeter, to do a project with his son.  It's an old family tradition.  Lloyd used to procure small TV roles for Beau and Jeff when they were boys.  After being invited to join the "Normal" cast, Bridges couldn't resist putting in a plug for Jordan.
       Geffen producing director Gil Cates, a longtime friend of Beau's, acknowledges the father-son casting idea was a great concept.  "The truth is, I'd hoped Jordan would be good for it.  I'm not unaware of the potential value, that it would be good for us.  But Jordan auditioned for the role and won it the old-fashioned way.  And let me tell you something about the Bridges family -- no one would have wanted him to do it if he hadn't earned the part on his own."
       Beau Bridges savors the extra dollop of reality his real-life son brings to the performance.  "To bring a family sense to a story like this was really important.  To me, the father aspect of the play is really interesting.  I think a lot of dads suffer from this sense of responsibility, of trying to be this perfect image to our children when you can't really be.  It's a job you're gonna lose at.  It's the most wonderful, exciting thing you can try to pull off.  I have five children, but I've failed miserably, over and over again."
       Jordan deadpans, "I'm not even gonna touch that."
       Beau continues, "With my dad, when I started to see through this perfection aspect, when I began to see the chinks, I remember it being very disconcerting.  But what eventually happened, when I finally gave in [to his fallibility], is it lifted me up.  My father's a great teacher, but if he screws up every once in a while, it just means he's human.  And that means I'm human too, so I don't have to worry about it so much anymore."
       Jordan says, "It's great when you come to terms with your parents' humanity."
     "But dads don't like to show it because it's part of their mystique," Beau responds.  "For Roy to come out as a new him is very dangerous, because he may lose all these people, or they may win together -- you have to pay your 10 cents and come see the play."
       "If we're successful in pulling this script off," says Bridges, "the audience will look beyond the whole notion of this guy having a transgender operation and instead see Jane's real theme, which is, how do we as human beings dare to find our true selves in a world that is sometimes very unaccepting of change.  Probably the best way to do that is with the love and support of your family and your dear friends.  There's a premise that has nothing to do with the transgender thing."
       "Looking for Normal" may be a story about family, but the twist in this domestic drama is pretty extreme.  One has to wonder what Lloyd Bridges, a rugged guy from the World War II generation, would think of his son and grandson's new project.  "Oh, he'd love it!" Bridges says without hesitation.
       "He loved working with family and he loved stretching out," he says.  "One of his favorite times was when he did 'Airplane,' sniffing glue, doing all these crazy things, and I teased him about it.  "I'm really so disappointed.  Can you imagine all those dads, young people especially, watching you, this terrible drug-infested character?  So I had fun with him on that."
       On opening night Beau Bridges plans on seeing his kids in the audience.  And Jordan fully expects one more member of the Bridges clan to make the premiere and watch as Beau wobbles across the stage in high heels and dress.  Lloyd Bridges died in 1998.  His memorial service was held at the Geffen.  Says Jordan, "He'll be here in spirit."
        "Looking for Normal," Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Opens Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Regular times: Tuesdays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8:30 p.m.; and Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends May 6. $21-$43. (310) 208-5454.
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