It's a Transgender Thing Beau Bridges and Co. explore how a sex change affects everyday souls
in 'Looking for Normal.' By HUGH HART
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
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
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%
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
"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
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
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
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.
Hugh Hart Is a Regular Contributor