Lea Coco is making some interesting career choices. The handsome young actor introduced himself to gay-film audiences last year in the coming-out drama Dorian Blues, in which he played a cocksure high-school student whose older brother, the titular Dorian, is struggling with his emerging sexual identity. This week, Coco joins Steppenwolf Theatre for a new play in which he portrays a minister with identity problems of his own.
The Unmentionables is a new comedy from playwright Bruce Norris, whose previous Steppenwolf production, last year’s The Pain and the Itch, painted a brutal portrait of a well-off liberal family in chaos. In The Unmentionables, Coco plays Father Dave, a naive youth minister traveling through West Africa who winds up in a villa with a disparate group of people and finds his ideology conflicting with his true self.
“I would say one of Father Dave’s major conflicts is his identity as he relates to the people that are around him,” Coco says. “He’s in conflict because he’s trying to make his understanding of himself match with his ideology. As a character who has never had sexual relations, who has renounced sexual relations, it leads to a great deal of confusion as to how he is going to fit into the paradigm as a youth minister.”
If it sounds a bit vague, it’s meant to be, but such is often the case in a Norris play, where secrets are constantly boiling beneath the surface. Coco assures us, however, that Father Dave’s internal battles are similar to ours.
“What I cling to in approaching this character is the struggle that we all have to be heard. We all want to be seen for the person not only that we are, but also the person that we want to be,” Coco says. “There’s a face you present to the world, and there’s what’s going on inside of you. The life struggle is to get those two faces to be aligned so that what’s happening on the inside is what’s happening on the outside. It’s a very universal struggle.”
Coco acknowledges that cutting his teeth on material like the GLBT-themed Dorian Blues has advanced his ability to portray characters experiencing inner turmoil. Near the film’s end, both Coco’s Nicky and his older brother Dorian find themselves questioning their own sense of self.
“The story [writer-director Tennyson Bardwell] wrote is about a friend of his who is not with us anymore. It was a very personal story of a friend he cared very deeply about, who struggled with his coming to the truth of himself in the midst of an environment that didn’t want to hear it. It’s a very similar struggle in the sense that [Dorian is] dealing with the world that’s inside the house, whereas [Father] Dave in The Unmentionables is dealing with the world that’s outside the house.”
Ultimately, audiences will have to venture to Steppenwolf themselves to understand the internal struggles, not only of Father Dave, but of each conflicted character in The Unmentionables. Coco says, however, that, like Dorian Blues, the play sheds light on certain human truths.
“The greatest thing about Dorian Blues, to me, is that it [sets up] this conflict in a situation that is extremely familiar to families all over the country,” he says. “In that sense, I would say The Unmentionables does a very similar thing, in that it puts so many different predominant perspectives of American culture in a pressure cooker and something has to give. Everyone has to face up to what their idea of truth is, and what the truth actually is involves other people. It’s impossible to say that one person’s way of living is wrong if you’re not willing to say that your way of living is wrong.”
The Unmentionables lifts the curtain Thursday 29.