SEEING DAVID SCHMADER'S FIRST SOLO show, Letter to Axl, several years ago, I remember thinking that Schmader had one of the keenest sensibilities I'd seen on stage. Years and a handful of solo shows later, that's still the case. Schmader possesses an uncommon and endearing talent for telling a story; his frank and funny autobiographical style is something close to Spalding Gray's, only without Gray's stifling self-involvement and all those Boston Brahmin vowels.

With Straight, Schmader follows his minted formula to its apex. Plunging into a steaming pool of research subjects (straight-white-boy rock, male prostitution, Christian queers), Schmader dog-paddles undercover till he gets acclimated enough to observe as an insider. His performances consist of alternatively witty and disturbing accounts of the natives, and his experiences living as one of them. In this case, the subject is the gay conversion therapy movement, epitomized by a Christian organization with a moniker as unsubtle as its message: Exodus.

Having identified himself as a gay man interested in plumbing the mysteries and motivations of the gay conversion movement with as little bias as he can muster, Schmader travels home to (where else?) the Lone Star State. There he signs up for a weekend stint at Camp True Hope, a sort of boot camp for the straight lifestyle. The weekend proceeds in a blur of bizarre Bible lectures and fumbling football games, culminating in an ex-gay talent show where Schmader sets Bible verses on leprosy as a folk song.

Schmader's straightforward, conversational style gets its theatrical edge from delicately shaded direction by Keenan Hollahan (Dan Savage), and expert light and sound design by Charles Smith. This style is the perfect display case for Schmader's smarts and vast potential for politically high-stakes performance. So it's a little disappointing that, although Straight is solid, it isn't craftier. Schmader has the aim and the ammunition to hunt the big game here: rather than exploring the straight and narrow, for example, he might have gotten meatier stuff out of redefining "queer" in the extremely queer context of gay conversion, Christian self-abasement, and cultural self-denial. Confirming, to a largely gay audience, that the misguided preachings of the religious right are indeed misguided is just preaching to the converted at a better-lit church. Straight proves that Schmader has what it takes to hit tougher targets, and that he should.

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