Speakeasy: Speak it loudly

Byline: Jim Seavor

The SpeakEasy Stage Company has come a long way since it opened 20 years ago – a really l o n g way.

Its first production, Is There Life After High School once played to an audience of three: two parents and a cast member.

This season it’s a firmly established member of the Boston theater scene and marking its 20th anniversary with the musical Nine.

Why should we be interested in a Boston theater?

Because, over those years the SpeakEasy Stage Company has been a theater we could go to for “gay plays” or shows with major LGBT characters – shows that would not be staged by larger companies or given road tours. Yes, even Rhode Islanders who tend to view journeys of more than 20 minutes as high adventure would make the trip to Boston.

So what is a “gay play?”

Artistic director Paul Daigneault says the line has become blurred between what would be called “gay plays” – with gay characters and gay themes – and shows with broader themes that include LGBT characters. While the older plays “speak to me” he says, he adds that things have become “integrated, and it’s great.” This season SpeakEasy produced Annie Baker’s Body Awareness which revolved around a lesbian couple, but their sexuality was not the main issue.

Of course, there are still plays in which a person’s sexuality is crucial.

For example, Take Me Out, which dealt with discrimination in baseball (and used the original costuming) used a gay character to get its point across while Some Men, Terrence McNally’s chronicle of LGBT history from the 1920s to the present, was gay all the way.

And it was a play with a strong gay theme that gave the theater its “first benchmark.”

In 1995, the very funny Paul Rudnick comedy Jeffrey, which is about life, love and the pursuit of happiness at the height of the AIDS pandemic became the first production to garner really large audiences and allow Daigneault to take a salary. (They would later produce Rudnick’s The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told which proved that not only were Adam and Steve in that garden, so were Mabel and Jane.)

Of course a theater cannot be gay all the time.

For example, the Theater’s second benchmark was Bat Boy, the Musical. It’s not a gay show but it was so popular they “opened and closed it three times” in one season. More people were hired as a result.

If the name SpeakEasy Stage Company reminds you of the illegal watering holes that sprang up during Prohibition, it’s just what Daigneault says they wanted, which was “to do something that was a little bit underground and unexpected.” The name also refers to “speaking out, having something to say.”

So what does the musical Nine have to say?

Daigneault, who calls it one of his favorite shows, says, “It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee.”

Based on Fellini’s film 81/2, Nine is about a film director who has reached the age of 40 and decides it’s time to do some soul searching. What does he do? He looks at his failed relationships with women.

Nine runs from Jan. 21 to Feb. 19.

SpeakEasy Stage Company is in the Roberts Theater in the Calderwood Pavilion on Tremont St. Their phone number is (617) 482-3279.