Posted: Sun., Aug. 5, 2001, 3:22pm PT

Fixing Frank
A Maximum Vacuum production. Produced by Michael Selditch, Randi Snitz.
Directed by Michael Selditch. Screenplay, Ken Hanes, based on his play.

Dr. Arthur Apsey - Dan Butler
Frank Johnston - Andrew Elvis Miller
Dr. Jonathan Baldwin - Paul Provenza


Paul Provenza, left, and Andrew Elvis Miller are featured in "Fixing Frank," shown at the L.A. Outfest.

As cleverly devised as the mental games of its warring shrinks, "Fixing Frank" exemplifies what happens when artists -- as opposed to pseudo-artists with political axes to grind -- take on a controversial issue. The topical matter in Ken Hanes' script, which he has closely adapted from his three-hander play, is "reverse therapy," the scientifically unproven -- and much reviled in the gay community -- method of transforming homosexual into heterosexual behavior. Hanes, though, is after deeper concerns, pushing his drama past issues into the realm where trust and beliefs are tested. Full of bold dramatic strokes and complex character shadings, shot-on-video pic is sure to set off heated discussion at fests and should entice micro-distribs with an eye toward ancillary play.

The small screen is where Hanes' dialogue-driven drama, framed by helmer Michael Selditch with a taste for close-ups, is most easily absorbed. What at first appears to be a typical session where patient Frank (Andrew Elvis Miller) has come to be "healed" of his gay identity by Dr. Arthur Apsey (Dan Butler) is actually part of a conspiracy Frank and his psychologist b.f. Dr. Jonathan Baldwin (Paul Provenza) have hatched to expose Apsey as a quack. It was Baldwin's idea to have Frank, a freelance writer, pose as a self-doubting subject and document the doc's nefarious practices.

What neither Frank nor Baldwin anticipate is Apsey's brilliance, and his means for turning words and arguments around, so that, eventually, Frank begins to truly doubt himself. Apsey catches Frank in a series of lies and deceits, which leads to Frank "outing" himself as an investigative reporter, and unhinging Baldwin's plan to file documented professional charges against Apsey.

Just as each successive session between doctor and patient reveals Frank to be putty in Apsey's hands, so each exchange between Frank and Baldwin exposes profound flaws in their gay marriage.

The air-tight dramaturgy, with each turn of the screw placing Frank on less sure ground, is generated by a ruthless kind of logic: Frank is a pawn, but the more he's played with by the shrinks, the more isolated he becomes from them, leading to inevitable but engrossing ethical and emotional ruptures. Butler has a rare opportunity to explore his considerable acting resources in a performance of corrosive intelligence and disarming subtlety, and he has a fine younger thesp to play off in Miller, who delivers much of Frank's internal tug-of-war through his active eyes. In the end, there's a real question of who the heavy is, with Provenza playing Baldwin's cool game of calculation like a poker master. Tech credits, though on a slim budget, make for a fine-looking if uneven-sounding vid production.

Camera (color, video), Tamas Bojtor; editor, Randi Snitz; music, Mark Strano; production designer, Selditch; set decoration, Jerry Schwartz; costume designer, Arlynn Wilson; sound, Tammy Douglas. Reviewed on videotape, L.A., July 26, 2001. (In Outfest.) Running time: 103 MIN.