What Becomes a Gay Icon Most?

During Eric R. Pfeffinger's "Closet Chronicles," there's a faint whiff of gay icons all around the West Village neighborhood where the Ground Floor Theatre is. To the west, where Barbra Streisand began singing. To the south, where the Stonewall riots erupted after Judy Garland's death. To the north, where the Continental Baths transformed Bette Midler into the Divine Miss M. To the east, where Charles Busch's plays first set audiences on their heels.

The play, about George (Brandon Malone), a young man who comes out to his dysfunctional Ohio family and the bizarre ways they react, unfolds oddly. It's narrated by Agatha (Emilie Madison), the neglected daughter who stops scenes in midstream and restarts them, forcing the cast to re-milk funny lines, insert new ones, or take a new approach to a moment. It may be one of the few coming-out plays to use gay humor and camp as an integral part of its style, and Marilyn Sokol, who plays Nancy, the mother, is key to that appeal.

A member of the Actors Studio -- she also teaches at the Actors Studio Drama School -- and an Emmy and Obie winner, Sokol says those who see her, too, as a gay icon surprise her. None of her Broadway appearances -- from her debut in O'Neill's "The Great God Brown" in 1972 to Herb Gardner's "Conversations with My Father" in 1996 -- were in particularly campy roles. And her film and TV career, while largely consisting of playing hilarious Jewish women -- the kinds of characters that have a natural appeal to gay sensibilities -- hasn't all been about a means to some kind of iconic end. "I've never thought of myself as a gay icon," Sokol says. "I'm not quite sure what that means. What exactly is a gay icon? Who is a gay icon? Do you set out to become one, or is it something people -- audiences -- tag you with?"

Perhaps the audience at "Closet Chronicles" explains it. In one scene, George, who has unexpectedly brought his black lover home for Easter, tells his mother they met in a leather bar. Three times he says it; three times Sokol points to her head, finally saying, "It's not going in." The audience roars.

In another scene, Nancy lies in bed with Ed (Richard Leighton), George's homophobic father, who asks if she's ever had lesbian fantasies. When she admits to "looking up" to Tina Turner, the giggles explode into gales. In a third scene, set at Christmastime, the father announces the family will revive Bible reading as a Yuletide tradition and picks the text for George to read. It turns out to be an antigay passage, a moment made all the funnier by Sokol's work in the scene. What Christmas present does George get? A gift certificate to "Gay No More," an aversion-therapy clinic. More mirth.

But Sokol is clearly not attempting to steal the show -- quite the opposite. She says she chose to play Nancy precisely because the character is a WASP, not the typically wacky Jewish lady that audiences, gay or straight, have come to expect of her. "You get typecast because you do something well, not because you do something poorly, and I don't get many opportunities to play something other than a Jewish girl." The irony is that while she was born Jewish, "I wasn't raised Jewish and I've been a practicing Buddhist for 30 years."

It's also clear that Sokol has, in true Actors Studio fashion, subsumed herself in the role, elongating and flattening her speech, for example, to sound appropriately Midwestern. And while the audience believes it, it's clearly primed to laugh. Have they also seen Sokol's one-woman cabaret show, "Me and My Fanny," her tribute to Fanny Brice? And is there a connection between that show and, say, "Funny Girl," the musical that yielded that ultimate gay icon, Barbra Streisand? Or is Sokol's initial question -- who and what is a gay icon -- ultimately too subjective to understand?

"Audiences, fortunately, are not monolithic," she says, adding that she can't worry about why she might have a gay following -- or more of one -- having done "Closet Chronicles." Ultimately, for her, it's all about being an actor and letting the audience work its will. "When I read 'Closet Chronicles,' I thought it was one of the funniest plays I had read in years, which is why I decided to do it, not to appeal to a particular audience, although their support is obviously greatly appreciated and does go into making the play a success. In this role, I don't feel that I have to hold back -- there's a real bubbly side to me that this role allows me to really give full form to. Nancy is funny, but she's also serious.

"What I also like about the play," Sokol concludes, "is how there's no real anger to it. It's refreshing that there isn't a defensive 'I'm coming out!' about it. These parents clearly love their son and try very hard to figure out how to handle what's happened. In that sense, I think the play embodies role models more than camp stereotypes." And if that's what becomes a gay icon most, she says, that's just fine by her.