Stars and bars. Kelly O

Keefee was, and maybe still is, a real person: a longtime gay-barfly in Tallahassee who impressed a young Stephen Hando with his blend of Southern grace and low-down crudeness. One night in the early 1990s, at one of Tallahassee's two gay bars, Hando overheard Keefee arguing with somebody. The old boozer spat out a line Hando would always remember: "Bitch, don't fuck with me!"

The sentence is simple, even witless, but its delivery—a swivel-necked, finger-snapping, razor-tongued viciousness—stuck with Hando. He had come from Toronto for college and fell in love with Florida's muggy heat, Spanish moss, and grimy gay culture. "Those Southern queens are just nasty," he says with a mix of admiration and repulsion. "Something about that combination of hospitality and foulmouthedness; the sad, sweet sincerity; that git down they-er accent."

Hando began performing short monologues as Keefee in 1997—a director asked him to create a character he found funny but thought nobody else would—but rebuffed suggestions that he develop a full-length Keefee show. ("Most solo shows are so boring," he sighs.) One tipsy night in Port Townsend, he and some friends started playing blackjack, and Hando slipped into character, dealing cards and trash-talking in a stretchy, syrupy drawl. He had found Keefee's vehicle.

In House of Cards, Keefee is working on his birthday, dealing blackjack at a broken-down Vegas casino called Shenanigans, "where the rainbow ends." It's his fallout job after chasing a romance to Nevada that ended poorly: "Ladies," Keefee asks, "you ever wake up in the backseat of your Camaro, on your birthday, out in front of your ex-boyfriend's house, to the sound of his wife knocking on the window telling you to get the fuck outta here before the kids wake up? Huh? That happens to me sometimes."

Shenanigans looks more Reno than Vegas, with souvenir shot glasses for sale, green streamers shimmering over the exits, and potted plastic plants. (It's depressing from the beginning: Designer Michael Mowery should be proud.) Four audience members sit at the battered card table onstage, and Keefee, in cutoff denim hot pants, a handlebar mustache, and short, bleached hair, totters onstage and starts prattling away. After his warm-up drink, he's in a dealer's uniform, sipping from a not-very-concealed can of Pabst and sassing his audience and his coworkers: Ruth (old and grouchy, played by Katy Bourne), Debra (hugely pregnant, played by Shannon Kipp), and Raymond (the schlubby, sleazy boss, played to sad-sack perfection by Joe Zavadil).

Part scripted and part improv, Keefee's House of Cards is a surprisingly tender journey into one busted ho's heart of darkness.

Hando is a deft character actor who keeps his loser lovable, even when he's belligerent and obnoxious. He plays up Keefee's tragedy, but never makes jokes at his expense, nor the audience's. (Hando is emphatic about wanting his audiences to feel comfortable with this slightly discomfiting character. "I hate improv where they pull someone up onstage and make fun of them," he says. "Like, 'Grab this hat!' and then laughing when the hat gets tugged away on a string: 'Ah-ha! You can't catch the hat!' That's just cheap.") Hando is a comedian of the sad-clown lineage—his real target is the empty sadness of life itself.

Hando has an instinct for what local playwright Keri Healey (the production manager of House of Cards) calls the "sad-happy sandwich." "Good comic actors are content to just find the funny button in a moment," she says. "But Stephen is more than a good comic. He finds the ugliness and darkness underneath, something sick even, but always something the audience can empathize with."

Hando has been making Seattle theater for 17 years, but he's a choosy actor, going long stretches without performing. He's wary of most plays ("they're too pretentious, too play-y"), doesn't like to audition, and talks about being a professional actor as if it's mildly distasteful. "I don't love acting so much that I'd be willing to do anything for it," he says. "I don't want to be in plays I don't want to be in." He doesn't have an Equity card.

Hando misses the raucous, topsy-turvy energy of defunct companies like Greek Active (where he played King John with a ruby in his navel and a rabbit-fur jacket) and Piece of Meat (where he played the downtrodden boyfriend of an abusive, morbidly obese shut-in). He's been quiet for the last few years, aside from a few shows with Sgt. Rigsby & His Amazing Silhouettes—shadow-puppet plays with a vintage radio-drama feel whose characters (surprise!) often end up in the gutter.

But that's changing. Hando, always a terribly capable actor, is starting to generate his own opportunities, starting with Keefee and a few forays into modern dance with choreographer Juliet Waller Pruzan. (They made a particularly funny short, about two office workers marooned as a leadership-building exercise, for On the Boards.)

"I'm trying to push myself more, to find that energy and get-out-there-and-fuck-it-up aesthetic," he says.

Keefee's House of Cards is an auspicious start. recommended