Unless you're a gay man, you're unlikely to know the name "Gus Mattox," and even if you're a gay man, you may not know the name Tom Judson. But Judson, who, as "Gus Mattox," had a brief but highly successful career as a gay porn star, is someone you should know. For in addition to displaying his hidden assets on adult DVDs, Tom has acted on Broadway and on national Broadway tours, has composed music for films (Metropolitan), television (Sesame Street), and the stage (the legendary original production of Charles Busch's Vampire Lesbians of Sodom), has been a columnist for a number of print publications, including The Advocate, plays several musical instruments, and the accordion also, sings, is a skilled raconteur, can build a wooden sundeck that is to die for, at 49 still has a body most 25 year olds would kill for, and has put up with, I mean acted with, Teri Hatcher. Is there anything he can't do? Well yes. He can't dance; don't ask him.
Although all of these talents, except possibly the deck-building skills, come into play in his one-man show Canned Ham, currently playing Los Angeles, but popping up in gigs of varying lengths all over the country, and summering this coming summer in Provincetown, Mass., it is his skills as a writer and as a raconteur that dominate this fast, funny, and surprisingly-moving evening in the theater.
Opening with a rendition on accordion and voice of Lullaby of Broadway as he recounts the weird disconnect he experienced when appearing on the stage of Los Angeles's prestigious Ahmanson Theater in the national tour of 42nd Street, while, on the same day, shooting his first-ever gay porn scene, a licentious three-way in a sling, for notorious gay porn mogul and drag queen Chi Chi LaRue (Chi Chi does not direct while in drag, Judson informs us. What a relief.), the tone and the style of the evening are set at once: irreverent, heavy on the self-deprecating humor (although a certain Pierre Fitch, and the aforementioned Miss Hatcher, will discover not all the humor is self-deprecating), lots of music, perhaps a bit more accordion music than would be requested by those of us who feel the squeezebox is an instrument that shouldn't have survived the Flood of Noah (particularly after we've heard Judson play some perfectly gorgeous Chopin on a piano with a delicacy of touch that is magnificent), with a dark underside to the tone that lurks under the comedy, to remind us of how it is all built on sadness.
For Judson's story is one of what happens after the romance is over. He tells of his lover, his lover's early death from AIDS, of his own blackly-comic suicide attempt (Has anyone else ever had their life saved by a tacky room color before?), and his wandering, emotionally lost, down many career paths until a chance meeting with LaRue led to the creation of "Gus Mattox," and a star was born.
The porn confessional genre in the past has mostly been dark, cautionary tales of not-too-bright-but-very-pretty people being used and exploited by soulless, cigar-chomping gangsters. Not Judson's. Although he retired from Porn five years ago, as he became the oldest man ever (at the geriatric age of 45) to win the GayVN Award (the porn Oscar-equivalent) for Performer of the Year (He seems almost, but not quite, disappointed at losing his title as "The Susan Lucci of Porn," as he brags about the long list of porn awards for which he was nominated and lost.), the extremely-intelligent Judson tells no tales of being exploited, nor of associating with unsavory criminal types. In fact, he takes time more than once, to express his gratitude to Chi Chi LaRue, who is a co-producer of this engagement, but not of the tour as a whole.
He does, however, get a lot of mileage out of the shock the porn crews he worked with experienced working with a performer who not only could learn lines, but could deliver them on camera in a convincing manner. He also gets laughs recounting working with one performer, the aforementioned Fitch, who utterly lacked these skills, and drove the nothing-if-not-professional Judson so insane on the set, with his inability to remember, or to correctly deliver, complex lines such as "Uh-huh," that, when it came time to do, you know, that thing they do, that Judson found all the Viagra on the set wasn't enough to make him rise to the occasion. The solution found to this challenge is hilarious, although there wasn't a man in the room who didn't flinch at Judson's revelation of what he had to do to - ah - overcome that problem.
His tales of working with Teri Hatcher (or "Teri Hatcher," as he calls her onstage, to protect her identity) are actually kinder than the broadsides fired at Fitch, but all the stories are rich in humor. As an evening of theatrical anecdotes-with-music, it ranks with Elaine Stritch's similar show a few years back, although Judson, in discussing his porn experiences, must use some words I don't recall ever hearing Stritchey employ onstage.
The melancholy tales of his lost-lover color the evening, but never harm the humor, in large part because Judson never turns morose or serious, even with the most-serious stories. His first revelation of his lover's death is delivered as a mere fact dropped into a sentence, and not dwelled on. He goes for no easy bathos, and the result is an unexpected emotional epiphany at the end.
He concludes with a tale of scattering some of his lover's ashes on the island of Capri that ends suddenly, with a simple, American Beauty-esque moment of glorious real magic which becomes without warning an instant of transcendent beauty. His playing-against-the-pathos all evening pays off here, as the image takes the audience by surprise, and I, for one, felt far more moved than I had expected. Was that moisture in my eyes? Yes it was. That is when you know you're in the hands of, not merely of a funny man, but a master story-teller.
I must comment on the program's credit: "Costumes by William Ivey Long." Now Long is a hugely-and-rightly respected Broadway costumer, with 11 Tony nominations and 5 Tony wins. For the first half of the show Judson wears a pair of faded blue jeans and an open, sleeves-ripped-off, red plaid flannel shirt. "Gus Mattox" fans will recognize this as his almost-uniform, worn by him (albeit briefly) in such porn videos as Falcon's Bootstrap and Colt's Big Rig. (I don't recall Long being credited with costumes on either of these videos, but it has been the better part of two days since I last saw either of them.) All-too-briefly in the middle of the show, Judson wears nothing but a jockstrap. (Yes, I've seen the body many times before, but never in 3-D, close enough to taste.) And then, for the latter half of the show, the faded denim is back, this time with a dark brown, subcutaneous T-shirt. If Judson wears anything in this show that didn't come from his personal wardrobe, I'll lick that jockstrap, preferably while he's still wearing it. It's hard to imagine Long's contribution to the show going much beyond just saying to him: "Yes, go with that." And frankly, one suspects he wears shirts in the show solely to keep his chest hairs from getting caught in the accordion.
I was the closest thing to a female in the audience. Ladies, if you don't mind the at-times rather graphic terms employed, since how do you tell stories of making pornography without them, women should find this show as entertaining as the men there very definitely did. Go see it.
The show plays at The Cavern Club Theater in Silverlake, Los Angeles through May 16, and all summer in Provincetown, Mass. You can order tickets for the LA engagement here. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door. And on the Canned Ham blog found here, you can get alerted to when the show will come to your local venue. Go. Enjoy. Trust me.
PS. After posting this review, I received a lovely thank-you note from Judson. It included this clarification about the contribution to the show of William Ivey Long:
"A brief note about William's contribution: I asked that his credit read 'Costume Coordinator.' You are spot on about the Gus Mattox plaid shirt (and about the entire wardrobe coming from my closet,) but the thing is I wasn't originally wearing it in the show. I wore a simple white t-shirt and blue jeans. William (who saw the first show) said, they're coming to see Gus Mattox, you have to show them Gus Mattox. And, lo, the plaid shirt came into play." - Tom Judson.
Drat! Now I don't get to lick that jockstrap! Sometimes I hate being right!