An actor in a Los Angeles-area production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” confronted a drunken heckler in the audience Saturday. The incident prompted the actor’s firing, a walkout from one of his castmates, and the subsequent cancelation of the last two weeks of the play’s run.
The production of Tennessee Williams’ play at the Repertory East Playhouse (REP) in Newhall, a town about an hour north of Los Angeles, had attracted little press attention before its May 31 performance. Last Saturday night, John Lacy, who was playing dying patriarch Big Daddy Pollitt, said a producer told him, "This is the drunkest house we’ve ever had." REP’s bar, which serves hard liquor, opens at 7 p.m. with curtain an hour later.
During intermission, Lacy said his co-star Anton Troy, who was playing Big Daddy's son Brick, was visibly upset. "He said someone was booing him and if he boos him again he’s going to snap," Lacy told Backstage. “We have a teacher-student relationship as well. I told him, 'You’ve got to use whatever’s happening out there.' He calmed down, but I should have maybe told him to find the stage manager.”
Before Lacy took the stage after intermission, "I told myself, 'No one’s going to heckle Big Daddy.'" Then he stepped out.
“Ten minutes in it's very audible and very clear someone’s booing my co-star. It was obnoxious. Then I go into a monologue and he starts booing me," Lacy said. At the end of the monologue, Big Daddy asks his son why he's being taciturn. The heckler yelled, "Because he’s a fag," Lacy recalled.
When the slur was used a second time, Lacy walked downstage, broke character, and asked who called out. The heckler stood up. Lacy descended into the audience. "Are you the one who said that motherfucker?" Lacy said. The heckler grinned and said, "Yeah.” Lacy pushed him down and a skirmish ensued between the actor, the heckler and his male companion. “I was definitely vulnerable," Lacy said. "This definitely isn’t Broadway."
Tim Sullivan, a filmmaker who was in the audience, rushed to his aide and gruffly escorted the heckler and his friend from the packed 81-seat theater.
Lacy doesn't regret confronting the heckler. "When someone is being homophobic to me or my fellow actor, it’s not acceptable," he said. "I wish it hadn’t come to that. I’m very, very disappointed.”
After the show Lacy said he was reprimanded by Ovington Michael Owston, executive director of the REP. When he defended his actions, Owston fired him.
Owston did not respond to a request for comment from Backstage. He said in a statement released by the theater: "We are committed to provide groundbreaking subject matter and professional performances to our audiences. We are extremely sorry that our patrons experienced this disruption and will do our best to make it up to those holding reservations for cancelled performances.”
Troy, whose character is a closeted football hero secretly pining for his dead male friend, resigned in solidarity with Lacy. “I think John took it into his own hands because it wasn’t going to get any better," he said in an interview.
Troy said he attempted to bring the heckling to the producers' attention, something his castmates dispute. “I mentioned it to the stage manager during the intermission,” he said. "They just said to roll with it.”
Lacy wouldn't have acted had the theater been responsible and ejected the heckler, Troy said. "They serve alcohol and they booze, these guys, up all night and there’s no security in the theater. There was no protection for us as the actors. We’re in a fishbowl up there.”
Lacy agreed with Troy that the theater wasn't well staffed. “There’s no presence of authority whatsoever in the theater," he said. “It’s not a well-run, well-staffed theater.”
Still, some of the cast disagreed with Lacy using violence to confront the heckler.
"The right thing would have been for John to stop the show, step off stage and get the producer to remove the audience member and refuse to go back on stage until that happened," castmate Missy Kaye said in an email. "If my fellow actors on stage felt 'threatened,' I believe they should have told the producer at intermission to remove the guy because they were uncomfortable with him being there. But to my knowledge the actors told no one and John decided to 'take the matter into his own hands' once back on stage and the homophobic slurs ensued."
Kaye said she was "saddened" that Lacy was fired. "I don’t in any way condone the homophobic comments the audience member said. It was disgusting and wrong. I am a strong supporter of gay rights," she said. "However, as actors we need to leave audience control up to security and management of the establishment. I don't believe becoming physical is the way to solve an issue."
Emily E. Low, who was playing Brick’s unfulfilled wife Maggie, said: "I just don’t think that violence was necessarily the best choice."
"As actors we must take the positive audience responses with the negative. It's not always about cheers and standing ovations," she wrote on Facebook, according to TheWrap. "And, the truth is, Brick is, after all, a gay man. The material is strong, and it elicits strong responses from an audience, different every night."
The Facebook conversation thread appears to have since been deleted.
Low told Backstage that rumors were circulating the rowdy audience members included her boyfriend or were invited guests. "I don’t know who they are and I still don’t know if they came for me," she said, noting she was widely publicizing her role in the REP production. "I’m incredibly embarrassed by their behavior."
Low, who previously went by the stage name Jolee Blon, said she was appearing in her first stage play. "This was a dream come true for me to land this role,” she said. "Why would I take the role if I had problems with gay issues? I love gay people. My best friends are gay. My mother is gay."
Low said she supported Lacy, but disagreed with his account of the audience's reaction May 31. "I didn’t hear any heckling going on in Act I. I heard normal audience reactions. What happened during Act II, I don’t know. I was backstage in the dressing room. I never heard what was said in terms of an anti-gay slur. I heard John Lacy saying, ‘What motherfucker?’ And then this brawl ensuing over the speakers. I was shocked when it was this outburst of violence.”
Low said that Troy informed Lacy of the heckling when he should have gone to the producers. "He could have informed the producers rather than John about these hecklers that he seems to have heard. But he didn’t go to the producers, he told his castmate so John defended his castmate. But it could have been handled by the higher ups, had they known," she said. "I don’t support the hecklers, I don’t support John Lacy being fired and I don’t support violence.”
The REP’s production of "Cat" was slated to run through June 14, with a potential tour in the works. REP apologized for the "unforeseen" cancelation, which it said stemmed from not having time to "adequately re-cast" the parts.
"The management of the REP regrets that this situation was not brought to their attention sooner and would like to assure future audiences that disruptive behavior, including disparaging remarks from the audience, incidents of bullying or hate speech, and racial, discriminatory or homophobic utterances, will not be tolerated and offending parties will be asked to leave the theatre,” REP said in a statement.
At least Lacy is in good company. Elaine Stritch delighted Broadway audiences during her one-person show with an account of Ethel Merman, during a production of “Call Me Madam,” descending into the audience to confront a heckling drunk in the middle of her song. She yanked him from his seat and pushed him down the aisle. After tossing him out into the street, according to the legend, she returned to the stage and, without missing a beat, resumed singing "Can You Use Any Money Today?"
The incident in Newhall had a similar conclusion. After the fracas subsided, Lacy retook the stage. “Do you guys want to hear the rest of our show?" he asked. The audience cheered. “We took that story to the finish line," Lacy said. "We finished that play with gusto.”