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Theater review: 'Dear Harvey' at the Strasberg Theatre [updated]

September 23, 2010 |  4:15 pm

DEAR_HARVEY_-_1 Some 30-plus years after his death, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected public official in California, continues to focus the public’s fascination – and outrage.  Patricia Loughrey’s “Dear Harvey,” presented by the Beat Project at the Lee Strasberg Theatre, fleshes out the larger-than-life dimensions of its flawed, quirky, passionate subject, whose 1978 murder served as a flash-point for the burgeoning gay rights movement.

More austere and rigorously historical than the Oscar-winning 2008 film, “Milk,” which won Sean Penn an Oscar in the title role, “Dear Harvey” has been drawn entirely from interviews with Milk’s closest friends and colleagues, archival materials, and Milk’s own written words. 

The various monologues are linked by a narrator (Laura Sanzo), who intones the whos, whys and wherefores of Milk’s life and tragically short political career. That device is a bit clunky, but the piece is otherwise well-constructed and impressively simple. So too is Anthony Frisina’s staging – or at least, it will be, given a bit more airing.  At present, it’s difficult to ascertain whether certain actors, most particularly John Meeks’ Milk, are groping for subtexts – or lines.

Thomas Hodges’ lush original music, performed live by Joe Symon on piano and Jyvonne Haskin on cello, sets an appropriately elegiac tone. The cast yanks its fair share of tears, none of them forced.  As Cleve Jones, the originator of the AIDS quilt, Clifford Bañagale gives a spectacularly gripping account of the quilt’s genesis. Vash Boddie also shines as Milk’s drag queen friend and supporter. The standout turn of the evening, however, is Heidi Sulzman as Milk’s young campaign coordinator, whose dry reminiscence builds into raw grief.

“Dear Harvey.”
Lee Strasberg Theatre, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.  8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays.  Ends Oct. 10.  $20.  (323) 960-7782.  Running time:  1 hour, 15 minutes.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

Photo: Clifford Bañagale and the cast of “Dear Harvey.”  Credit:  Sean Lambert

 [Updated: an earlier version of this review misspelled Heidi Sulzman's last name.]