Desert Rose Playhouse has made a wise decision to present a Mae West double-feature at the start of Pride Month here in the desert—even if that wasn’t the original plan, seeing as the plays were delayed from an originally scheduled February opening date.

The opening of both shows was then pushed back again by a week—and then The Drag opened on its own earlier this week, with the opening of Sex delayed until last night.

Fortunately, the plays—which largely feature the same actors in different roles—were well worth the wait.

We’ll start with The Drag, which I saw Thursday night. Written in 1927 under the pseudonym Jane Mast, the play takes a look at drag culture in the 1920s—and the cost of living a secret life. First performed in Connecticut, the play lasted just 10 performances before being banned.

As the curtain rises, we meet Dr. James Richmond (Steve Rosenbaum), who is spearheading research meant to cure homosexuality and transsexuality. He truly believes these “troubled souls” can be converted into morally upright citizens. Trading barbs with the doctor is his older sister Barbara (Terry Ray), a spinster who’s been looking out for him for decades: “I haven’t had a day off since the day you were born!”

An unscheduled patient arrives, desperate for the doctor’s help. David (Joseph Portoles) was born a male, but has always identified as a woman. He’s confused, depressed and tortured by feelings of being an outcast and “damaged goods.” Dr. Richmond agrees to do what he can.

What the doctor does not know is that his own son-in-law, Rolly (Jason Reale)—viewed as a very successful, masculine man by many—is, in truth, a closeted homosexual. Married to his high school sweetheart, Claire (Jaqueline Lopez), Rolly secretly hosts drag parties with a group of loud, flashy gay friends, and is lusting after his business partner, Allen Grayson (Nick Wass). Rolly’s father, a well-respected Judge (Frank Catale), is in the dark about his son’s predilections.

Meanwhile, Claire and Grayson have a mutual attraction of their own, which is slowly blossoming into romance. It all comes to a head one fateful night during one of Rolly’s flamboyant parties, when someone ends up dead.

The ensemble cast works well together. Tall and gangly, Terry Ray is perfect as the dowdy but wise Barbara. There are moments when you really do forget that he’s a guy in drag. Later on, Ray also appears as the over-the-top Duchess, stealing the spotlight at one of the drag parties.

As Dr. Richmond, Steve Rosenbaum is spot-on. Reminiscent of a slightly balding Mandy Patinkin, he exhibits just the right mix of fatherly concern for Claire and scholarly interest in human sexuality.

Jason Reale is terrific as Rolly. He’s pompous and effete, and shows very little concern for his wife, so it’s somewhat puzzling that those around him seem unaware of his sexual orientation. Jaqueline Lopez shines as the long-suffering Claire. We feel her pain as she wrestles with unclear suspicions about her husband and a growing infatuation with Grayson.

A scene from Desert Rose Playhouse’s double-feature of Sex and The Drag.

Nick Wass owns the role of Grayson. Handsome, successful and level-headed, he has no carnal interest in Rolly, but cannot seem to control the lust he does feel toward Claire. Frank Catale does a nice job as the Judge. Self-important and proud, appearances are everything to him. Discovering that his son is gay is not something for which he’s prepared.

Art Healey is properly buttoned-up and deferential as the butler, Parsons. Sashaying around the stage, Johnny Pelto is quite funny as Clem. In smaller roles, Laura Martinez-Urrea as Marion, and Zoe Sanchez, Kevin O’Shaughnessy, Alexa Ottoson and Joseph Portoles as drag queens all step up to the plate.

Director Robbie Wayne skillfully puts his actors through their paces. He captures just the right balance of camp and humor with the serious tone needed to highlight the tragedies that have befallen many gay people for years.

Live theater is exciting, exhilarating, fun—and risky. Because live shows are living, breathing entities, things can go wrong. And they often do.

Having to replace a pivotal cast member at the last minute is one of the larger problems a theater can face. In its production of Mae West’s Sex, Desert Rose Playhouse has handled that issue with great flair: Artistic director Robbie Wayne had to step into the role of Margy with just three days’ notice, yet he gave quite an impressive performance. He proved once again that he is a consummate pro.

Mae West wrote Sex in 1926, a year before The Drag, again using the pen name “Jane Mast.” It received some bad reviews, but it was a commercial success on Broadway. After 375 performances, police arrested West on charges of obscenity. Legend has it that West arrived at the jail in a limousine, dressed in a silk negligee and a garland of roses. She served 10 days.

Ironically, the scandal gave her career as boost. A few years later, Paramount Pictures offered West a studio contract. She became one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood and had a great deal of control over her career—usual for a woman in those days.

The play, which I saw Saturday, tells the story of Margy LaMont (Wayne), a savvy prostitute who longs for a better life. It opens at Rocky’s residence in Montreal’s red-light district. Rocky (Johnny Pelto), Margy’s pimp, gets a visit from Dawson (Art Healey), a cop he’s been paying off to keep quiet about a murder. Next to arrive is Margy’s best friend, Agnes (Alexa Ottoson). Tired of the sex trade, she’s been saving money in hopes of returning home to her parents.

Then Gregg (Steve Rosenbaum) shows up. A Royal Navy officer and one of Margy’s customers, he’s a friend who actually cares about her. Later, Rocky returns with Clara (Terry Ray), a rich society woman he robs after plying her with drugs and alcohol. He flees; Margy and Gregg return just in time to save Clara’s life. To save herself from embarrassment when police arrive, Clara accuses Margy of the crime, and Margy vows revenge.

Later, Margy meets a young millionaire, Jimmy Stanton (Nick Wass), on the deck of a ship in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Unaware of her profession, Jimmy soon falls in love and proposes. When he takes her home to meet his parents, all hell breaks loose. The past rears its ugly head—and things get very complicated.

While the cast seemed just a bit tentative in the play’s opening moments—thrusting a new actor into a lead role at the last minute can do that—the ensemble cast acquitted itself well.

Johnny Pelto is terrific as Rocky. Hard-nosed, gruff, clever and only out for himself, he’s just what you would image a 1920s pimp to be—yet Pelto brings out the humor in the character and makes him a bit likable. Steve Rosenbaum’s Gregg is one of the more sympathetic characters in the play. His unwavering love for Margy is touching, and the audience roots for him right from the start. As Agnes, Alexa Ottoson really pulls at our heartstrings. She doesn’t seem cut out for the sex trade, and her vulnerability is palpable.

The overall mood and tone of the productions are superb. That starts with the use of old black-and-white news-reel footage for the opening credits in The Drag, and black-and-white movie clips as Sex opens.

Terry Ray is simply superb as socialite Clara. Just as in The Drag, it is easy to forget that he’s a man dressed up in female clothes. He is extremely believable as a woman; Ray is an immensely talented actor who’s such fun to watch.

Frank Catale does a nice job as Jimmy’s jovial, wealthy father—happy that his son is engaged, and just hoping everyone can get along. Art Healey is quite good as officer Dawson—serious about enforcing the law, but not above taking bribes now and then.

As Jones, one of Margy’s old customers, Jason Reale is appropriately lascivious. Joseph Portoles (Jenkins) and Jaqueline Lopez (Marie) are adorably prim and proper as the Stanton butler and maid, respectively. In smaller roles, Laura Martinez-Urrea and Zoe Sanchez as hookers Flossie and Red hold their own.

The standout here, of course, is Robbie Wayne (who also directed), as Margy. Pulling off drag, as always, with great aplomb, Wayne makes Margy his own. Much like West herself, Margy is bawdy, smart and no-nonsense—but underneath it all, she longs for love, like we all do. Wayne lets that softness and yearning shine through. He’s also hilarious: The confrontations Margy has with Clara later in the play are a hoot.

Other than the aforementioned slow start in the beginning, Wayne never seemed to miss a beat or a line from what I could see—quite an impressive feat, given he had only a few days to step into the role.

A few things about both The Drag and Sex deserve special mention. The overall mood and tone of the productions are superb. That starts with the use of old black-and-white news-reel footage for the opening credits in The Drag, and black-and-white movie clips as Sex opens; congrats to Nick Wass and James Cesena for that.

Then there’s the set, which is flat out amazing. Everything is in black, white or shades of cream and grey. It flawlessly captures the look of an upscale doctor’s office, a swanky New York apartment in the 1920s, and more. Kudos to set designer Matthew McLean and his crew, Bill Kates and Kevin O’Shaughnessy.

Bill Kates deserves a nod for the period costumes, as does Art Healey for the wigs. Alexa Ottoson’s makeup design is genius. Each actor sports white pancake makeup, which reinforces that moody, film-noir feel. The music and lighting are top notch as well.

Mae West was way ahead of her time. In The Drag particularly, she channeled her anger over injustice into a witty, yet sometimes somber piece of theater. The really sad part is that so little has changed in 95 years. As poet E.E. Cummings told us, “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you like everybody else, means to fight the hardest fight any human can fight—and never stop fighting.”

The fight continues.

The Mae West double-feature of Sex and The Drag will be performed at 2 p.m., Sunday; 7 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday; and 8 p.m., Friday, through Friday, June 10, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 611 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Suite 16. Tickets are $39; high-top tables (for four) or VIP couches (for two or three) are $177. Desert Rose Playhouse will honor the tickets of anyone who saw The Drag but missed Sex because of the delay. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit

Bonnie Gilgallon, a theater reviewer for the Independent since 2013, is an award-winning stage actress and singer who performs at many venues around the valley. She also hosts “The Culture Corner,”...

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