A half-naked male body builder found on the streets may seem too good to be true for some, but the character changes the lives of a number of people in Jim Grimsley’s “Mr. Universe,” being produced by 7 Stages.
According to playwright Grimsley, who is gay, it’s the third time his play has been staged in Atlanta —first in 1987 and then in the mid ‘90s, both times at 7 Stages. “Mr. Universe” is directed by 7 Stages’ Del Hamilton, who played the character of Vick in the original production, and it stars openly gay actors Don Finney and Doyle Reynolds.
In the French Quarter of New Orleans, circa the late ‘70s, two drag queens —Judy (Finney) and Vick (Reynolds) — find an almost naked young man (Brian Kirchner), who is mute and homeless, and take him in. The city is in the midst of a murder mystery, and the identity of Mr. Universe remains vague.
Finney was in the original production and balked at first when thinking of reprising his role as Judy. He originally thought he was too old to do it again but realized the script had no age restriction. Finney says there are some subtle tweaks to the character this time, and he is happy to once again share a stage with Reynolds, one of his close friends.
Reynolds calls Judy the evil one of the two lead characters.
“Vick is responsible and nurturing and Judy is one step from being on the streets,” he says. “I would say they have a troublesome relationship.”
As for Mr. Universe himself, Reynolds says his identity is open to interpretation.
Hamilton agrees that Mr. Universe is someone different to everyone.
“Mr. Universe is the perfect man, and who he is depends on who is viewing,” says Hamilton. “Our Judy may see something awful and he acts abusively. Our Vick may see something more needy, and this fulfills him.
“But it’s kind of like a blank slate: One sees what one needs to see when viewing the image of Mr Universe,” he says. “In that way, he services everyone’s needs.”
New Orleans, too, becomes a central character in the play, says the director.
“Though written before Katrina, the social and cultural fabric of this city is also one of the characters of the play,” Hamilton says. “The river flows by no matter what happens. The holes in the fabric of the culture are in view in our production, it is torn and in distress, and the people reveal this.”
Hamilton and Grimsley are longtime friends and colleagues and 7 Stages has been proactive about producing the playwright’s work, which Hamilton greatly admires.
“I think Jim is on to something important about who and what we are,” he says. “His writing, although deeply Southern in its roots, is really about our nation and its citizens. It’s not like looking at a mirror image of who and what we are, though. It’s more like splitting atoms by emotional and psychological explosions, and then taking a look at where everything ends up.”
Top photo: ‘Mr. Universe’ features (left to right) Don Finney as Judy, Brian Kirchner as the title character, and Doyle Reynolds as Vick. The play by Atlanta writer Jim Grimsley returns to 7 Stages. (by S. Nicole Boroski)