Ben Randle

THEATRE DIRECTOR

SF Chronicle: "Military Policy and 'Brutal Drama"

By Michelle Devera

The timing couldn't be better for playwright Bill Quigley and the West Coast premiere of his drama "Don't Ask."

With Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker's Aug. 4 decision to strike down California's ban on same-sex marriage, a play that addresses yet another frontline in gay rights - the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy - is striking while the iron's hot.

"It's an exciting coincidence," the 48-year-old New Yorker says.

Don't let the title fool you though, Quigley warns, because it's so much more than that.

"It's about power and our need for denial," he says. "It's not political theater at all. It's a sexually charged, brutal drama. The characters aren't saints, not martyrs. They're two deeply flawed human beings in a dangerous situation of their own creation."

"Don't Ask" - about an Army private having an affair with his superior officer set against the backdrop of the Iraq war and prisoner abuse - opened at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2006 and caught critical notice.

"The military demands this lie of omission from gay servicemen and women. ... Don't tell us who you love and sleep with, and we'll allow you to keep going into foreign lands and spill your blood," Quigley says, adding, "There's sex, violence, blackmail - all the good things that make for an intriguing night of theater."

And, apparently, a night at the movies. That it's being optioned for a movie by Oscar-nominated and Grammy-winning producer Stuart Benjamin ("Ray," "La Bamba") and in development speaks to Quigley's craft.

"I'm in a really good place right now and feel like this is what I should be doing," he says.

But it wasn't always this way, and Quigley's current success - he just won the Alan Minieri Memorial Playwriting Award with his co-playwright in residence (Bleecker Street Theatre Company), C.S. Drury, for their short play, "So Long Lives This" - is a drama in its own right.

Quigley started out on the actor's path, starring in national tours of Athol Fugard's "Master Harold ... and the Boys" and "Our Town" and spots on "Law & Order," but by his mid-30s, offers weren't pouring in. "The pursuit of an acting career is brutal and difficult. ... It became clear that the career I had hoped for wasn't going to happen."

Then, 10 years ago, Quigley says, he was struck by a "lightning bolt of inspiration" for a play he felt compelled to write: "Chip Off the Moon," about a family in the Bronx coming to terms with their son's homosexuality in 1953.

"This is a world before the word 'gay,' before Oprah and Dr. Phil," Quigley says with emphasis. "So, if it was hard for me in the '80s, what must've it been like in the 1950s?"

Yet not all his inspiration derives from homosexual themes. His newest work, "Tomorrow Morning," takes on the hot-button issue of abortion.

"What I love about writing is that you take the blank page and create a world that didn't exist before you sat down at the keyboard. I write whatever tugs at my heart."

Directed Ben Randle. 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. (Check website for full schedule.) Previews Fri.; opens Sat.. Through Sept. 19. $22-$40. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., S.F. (415) 861-8972.www.nctcsf.org.