Newsweek is on the nose. And not just because it sits unloved on the auction block, an almost-extinct relic of new media.

An essay on the venerable magazine’s website has caused a minor storm, at least in theatrical circles. Author Ramin Setoodeh asked not unreasonably — whether gay actors could play straight, singling out flamboyant Will and Grace star Sean Hayes for his “wooden and insincere” performance as leading man in Broadway revival Promises, Promises.

Hayes’ co-star Kristin Chenoweth, outraged, called the article “horrendously homophobic” in a strongly worded response; camp TV hit Glee creator Ryan Murphy has called for a boycott of the magazine (a little redundant given its alarming circulation slides).

Chenoweth writes that Setoodeh “argues that gay actors are simply unfit to play straight”. Which just isn’t true. Indeed, I didn’t find Setoodeh’s unassuming 891 words in any way offensive or homophobic. In context, the Newsweek piece raises some compelling questions. As he writes:

“Most actors would tell you that the biographical details of their lives are beside the point. Except when they’re not. As viewers, we are molded by a society obsessed with dissecting s-xuality, starting with the locker-room torture in junior high school.”

Theatre producers — or film, for that matter — must judge actors on one overriding characteristic: believability. Will the audience believe this person is who they play? Or will what we know of the actor jar the experience?

Setoodeh couldn’t cop Hayes as a macho advertising exec chasing his female co-worker’s tail. That doesn’t make him homophobic (in fact, in a follow-up defence he outed himself). It’s a legitimate problem for the performance.

There is absolutely a double-standard at play here. When straight actors play gay it’s considered daring and Oscar-worthy. When gay actors make the trans-s-xual identity switch nobody seems to buy it. It’s hypocrisy and it sucks.

Nobody is suggesting good actors can’t play against type — that is the job, after all. Many have and do successfully. But if we fail to believe a gay actor in a straight role, is our closed-mindedness at fault, or is it simply miscasting?

Next month, Paris Hilton’s favourite Australian stand Rob Mills will step down from his role as lothario prince Fiyero in musical Wicked. Openly gay (and terrifically talented) all-singing and dancing man Tim Campbell will replace him. Will the audience buy it? Or, like when Campbell’s now boyfriend Anthony Callea was chasing skirt as Boq in the same show, will knowledge of public romances nag us while watching?

Maybe Rupert Everett is right: maybe gay actors should keep the closet door locked. Journalists don’t reveal who they vote for because it will colour their commentary in the minds of readers — doesn’t the same apply to actors?

This is ugly stuff; against a worthy fight for equal opportunities. But let’s not pretend it isn’t an issue, at least while it’s an issue for audiences.

Read the rest at Crikey’s Curtain Call blog.