Stephen Sondheim fans may find the master composer curiously omnipresent in "The Homosexuals" at New Conservatory Theatre Center.
Sondheim being a homosexual, and his status as an icon to many of the homosexuals who make up the theater community, are only a few of the references -- like listening stops on a museum audio tour -- made in the new play by Philip Dawkins.
In the opening scene, Peter (Matt Weimer) delivers a diversionary diatribe on the injustice of Catherine Zeta-Jones winning a Tony Award for "A Little Night Music," the 2010 revival of a show by -- you guessed it -- Sondheim.
"It's a MUSICAL!," he intones in grand and humorous homosexual dudgeon, desperately trying to postpone getting dumped by his boyfriend Evan (Robert Rushin), who is pretty, prodigiously endowed (as he reminds Peter) and pretty vapid. When the inevitable breakup does happen, Peter quotes the Sondheim show to amusing effect.
The action then jumps backward a couple of years, a device that continues (much like Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along") until it ends at the beginning with a party, replete with cake and candles, for a single man surrounded by his friends (much like in Sondheim's "Company").
Playwright Dawkins clearly has a talent to amuse and is heeding the admonishment to write what he seems to know: the self-induced, drama-fueled intermingling of a group of homosexual men, leavened by presence of the obligatory hag (his term) set at the turn of the most recent century.
The problem is that his central character as written is not particularly compelling. Evan is weeping soon into the play and again before it ends, but nothing more terrible than a burst appendix befalls him. He's a naif escaped from Iowa and sleeping his way through his new friends.
Those "good and crazy people," his friends, are infinitely more interesting. Or they could be. Unfortunately, as staged by Arturo Catricala, the production feels under-rehearsed and labors against unfulfilled potential.
The play, a collection of scenes really, has Evan consistently giving his friends another chance to disapprove or deliver another brilliant zinger. The performers grab moments and spotlight lines but feel constrained. Fortunately, Daniel Redmond and Keith Marshall offer some welcome dermal distraction, and Scott Cox, Gabriel Ross and Alyssa Stone manage spots of real poignancy and/or humor.
Perhaps with time and more performances, the production will reconcile with advice it sets up in that opening scene. Evan claims he is not a homosexual, he is gay. Peter, however, clings to his homosexual standing. Evan replies, "Whatever you are, be a good one."
Where: New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes June 28
Tickets: $25 to $45
Contact: (415) 861-8972, www.nctcsf.org