by Mindy Leaf for Around Town

Island City Stage, about to celebrate its seventh season of great and perceptive theater, has raised the bar yet again in world premiere presentations. This time, it’s a play written and directed by one of their own: Associate Artistic Director (and Tony and Drama-desk award nominee) Michael Leeds. I predict many more accolades to come for STARMAKER, Leeds’ dramatic investigation into the life and times of Hollywood’s legendary talent agent, Henry Willson (notorious for launching 1950’s “beefcake” craze) and his number one creation, Rock Hudson. Of course, being set in Hollywood, there’s name-dropping galore (including many Willson screen-name contributions). So we also get to meet Golden Age heartthrobs Lana Turner, Troy Donahue, Rory Calhoun and Tab Hunter, all so-christened by Henry Willson.

What struck me most about “Starmaker” — in addition to the fascinating character studies — was how comprehensive and intelligent this play is. Two-and-a-half hours (with a fifteen-minute break) cover lots of social and cinematic history spanning the 1950s to ’80s. Movie stars rise and fall, including the star maker himself, who comes to a sad and tragic end in the late ’70s. Childhood flashbacks might explain some of his backstory. But the ugliness and pervasiveness of Hollywood’s casting couch is also in full view, as are unwarranted McCarthy-era FBI investigations of communists and homosexuals (put in the same category) as representing dangers to our democracy.

All serious stuff but, like any good evening’s entertainment, the play is frequently punctuated by humorous acerbic comments and interactions. Time transitions are another call for laughter when a wildly dancing girl — decked out in that decade’s distinctive garb — suddenly appears under a spotlight, gyrating to a hit song of the day.

We can also enjoy Willson’s ongoing commentary. Quotations by everyone from Sartre to Dante to Emily Dickinson add an erudite and contemplative dimension to the nastiest of scenes. I’ll have to do more research to discover if this talent agent, a Wesleyan University graduate and former celebrity journalist, actually spouted such wisdom. In any case, I found his aphorisms to be a refreshing intellectual distraction from the rather seedy business of creating stars, getting cast, and keeping any unsavory past histories and socially unacceptable actions out of the public eye.

Willson did have a penchant for origami paper figurines (displayed on his desk) and likens his show business strategy to the Japanese art of making something from nothing. “I created these lunkheads,” he says as Rory Calhoun (Samuel Maya), Troy Donahue (Sahid Pabon) and Tab Hunter (Sean Davis) parade onstage. “I’m the man behind the men.” To which the three actors respond in unison, “literally,” eliciting snickers from the audience.

Visiting NYC actor David Edwards plays Henry Willson as a ruthless Hollywood dealmaker who will sacrifice a dirty secret of one of his own clients (like Rory Calhoun’s arrest for burglary at age 16) to avert a gossip magazine’s outing of his number one moneymaker, Rock Hudson (hunkily and sensitively portrayed by Clay Cartland). As an obsessive “protector,” he both grooms and preys upon his stable of young ingénues (trading in sexual favors for both himself and studio heads in exchange for representation and starring roles). All the while, insisting his gay clients remain in the closet (they can’t even room together) to keep both their careers and his business intact. Willson’s rule for going out in public: Never be seen with just one guy. “Two men are a couple, three are pals.”

When he perceives Rock and his boyfriend Jack (an aspiring actor who refuses to prostitute himself for work, also beautifully enacted by Sahid Pabon) are in danger of becoming too close, he orchestrates a phony scenario to incite their breakup. Then plants his loyal secretary Phyllis (the striking and versatile Jeanine Gangloff Levy, also appearing as Lana Turner) as an acceptable love interest. They marry after three months, divorce after three years, with poor Phyllis appearing genuinely clueless, for a time at least, as to why her husband can’t satisfy her in bed.

Meanwhile, as if the dozens of famous motion picture posters strewn about the stage (creative scenic and lighting design by Ardean Landhuis) aren’t enough to bring us into the stars’ storied past, we’re treated to observations about Hudson’s blockbuster films. Starting with his breakout role in “Magnificent Obsession” to “All That Heaven Allows,” “Giant,” followed by a string of romantic comedies after “Pillow Talk” with Doris Day. It’s observed that: “For the seventh straight year, Rock Hudson was the most popular actor of the year and a paragon of masculinity.”

But as the world turns, and tastes change, we enter the era of antiheroes like Bonnie and Clyde. Gregory Peck is cast over Hudson in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Rock dumps Willson for no longer getting him the big parts and because “you take 50% for doing nothing; you’re a pimp.” But then says, “Give him whatever he wants” at their breakup when Willson cries out, “I loved you.” Followed by the agent’s cynical comment, to us, “He who traffics in emotion is bound to get burned.”

Willson does more than get burned. We next witness him being thrown out of a popular Hollywood restaurant when he makes a scene upon being denied his regular table. “I don’t make scenes, I make stars!” he retorts. But the film business model has changed  and his stars abandon him in droves once his secret becomes public knowledge and they fear being labeled homosexuals by association. Willson’s ensuing rapid descent into drug addiction and alcohol leaves him penniless and dead in 1978 in an unmarked grave. (A year later, a donated headstone has “Star Maker” inscribed as his epitaph.)

Hudson no longer attends film openings after someone yells “faggot” at the premiere of “Pillow Talk” and ends up (after 63 movies) only acting in TV series and a few plays. And then he contracts the AIDS virus that in 1984 The NY Times had yet to print anything about “so it doesn’t exist.” When Hudson lies in his sickbed, his first true love, Jack, returns to care for him. And when he dies on October 2, 1985, suddenly AIDS is in everyone’s thoughts “all because one man caught a virus.” Rock’s legacy lives on, as the ghost of Henry Willson returns to reflect: “He was the first major gay star to give AIDS a face.”

Catch all the brightest stars that are making Starmaker a hit at Island City Stage’s home at the Wilton Theater Factory, 2304 N. Dixie Hwy, Wilton Manors 33305. Playing through September 8. For tickets go to islandcitystage.org or call 954-928-9800.