Despite the recent collapse of several small theaters, new playhouses are springing up like Christmas tree lots. Would that these companies were offering something other than a handful of interesting performances in shows no discerning playgoer will want to see.
Hidden away in a tiny, unmarked storefront, D and D and Company is launching its first season with Fast Girls, a sitcom about sex and single people. An affiliate of the tiny actors' studio that shares its name, D and D is showcasing students past and present in this uninspired sitcom.
The only "fast" girl here is Lucy (Angelica Frost), a children's book editor who has swapped wedded bliss for slutty weekends with strangers. Her ex-boyfriend, Sidney, has given up trying to wed her, but is banking on Lucy's mother's attempts to change Lucy's mind. Mom (Paula Marinos) ends up daring Lucy to win a proposal from Sidney, and, because she's a character in a poorly written comedy, Lucy accepts the dare.
The program tells us that the play takes place today, but its people have concerns mired in the middle '80s, when discussions of safe sex were still sort of racy and we were more likely to be amused at the thought of a grown woman's mother buying her condoms. Few young adults are concerned anymore about the sexual mores that Lucy and her pals fret about, and there's nothing provocative about single women who admit they'd rather sleep around than marry.
Diana Amsterdam's brittle and occasionally witty dialogue never overcomes her dated and implausible story, and her characters are straight out of Central Casting. At their worst, they're second-rate stereotypes: a nosy, overbearing Jewish mother who lives to see her daughter married; a nebbishy, possessive boyfriend; a frumpy, overweight best friend who transforms herself into a femme fatale by removing her glasses and undoing her chignon.
In the lead, Frost does what she can with Lucy. She breathes a little life into some pretty banal scenes, and manages to appear intelligent and charming while trumpeting the joys of whoring around. The other performances are acting-student caliber, with a single exception. Stephen J. Craig is delightful as Sidney, the garrulous goofball determined to wed Lucy. His voice leaps a musical scale of emotion, and his dialogue is punctuated with quirky little laughs and rubbery facial expressions that make every dumb line sparkle. He proves helpful in an acting pinch, too: While waiting for a missed sound cue, he and Frost filled the interminable space with bright chatter that must have made director and D and D drama coach Donna DeCarl proud.
The fledgling Nearly Naked Theatre delivers a similar dilemma with Salome's Last Dance, a translation of Ken Russell's film of the same name. With its third outing, the company offers a charming performance in a show with nothing else to recommend it. Russell's screenplay includes most of Oscar Wilde's play, Salome, which was translated for the film from the original French by Vivian Russell. Here, the original is distilled into a mishmash of noisy chatter and supposedly sexy situations that obscure its intentions.
The story takes place in 1892, three years before Wilde's public disgrace and imprisonment. In a filthy, harshly lighted Victorian brothel, Wilde (Kevin Kleinhanzl) sips champagne and watches while dumpy young prostitutes enact his new play, Salome. The show has been recently banned in London, after its explicit sex and erotic situations were branded obscene by the Lord Chamberlain. After a lot of expository nonsense and a couple of cheesy gymnastics routines, the play-within-a-play gets going with the arrival of King Herod (Damon Dering, who also directs) and his stepdaughter, Salome (Andrea Morales). Determined to see her undraped, Herod promises Salome (pronounced Sah-LOW-may here because, as the program points out, that's how the Brits say it) anything she wants in exchange for a performance of her infamous Dance of the Seven Veils. She asks, of course, for the head of John the Baptist, who has repeatedly refused her advances.
Russell imagines Salome as a mirror of Wilde's own eccentric, sin-filled life, but Salome's Last Dance is no history lesson. The author's purpose is not to enlighten us about how or why Wilde was imprisoned; he's invested only in proving how naughty the writer was. He envisions Wilde as little more than a lecherous pornographer, a bitchy effete who haunts whorehouses and laughs at his own comeuppance.
Russell further muddies things by having Wilde's boyfriend, Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie"), play John the Baptist -- a dual casting that finds Bosie (Tim Butterfield) fighting to stay in character while Wilde necks with one of the whores. There are other confusing twists tacked on at tale's end, presumably to foreshadow Wilde's future and placate Wilde boosters and history buffs, but none of them is shocking or historically accurate.
Nearly Naked's production is sunk by the usual little theater problems: thrift-store costuming, meager technical effects, and mostly inadequate acting. To compensate, director Dering has filled his stage with a perpetual parade of nonsense meant to distract us. As the story unfolds, the background is constantly writhing with mugging and flirting and simulated sex. Even during the climactic Dance of the Seven Veils, a backlighted orgy commences behind a filmy scrim.
Morales is an engaging Salome, but -- with the exception of Butterfield, whose Bosie/John the Baptist is given little more than an occasional outburst (and who looks for all the world like Jambi, the genie from Pee Wee's Playhouse) -- the remaining members of the ensemble turn in messy, unremarkable performances. To play an actor who can't act requires some little skill, and these actors display very little indeed. Their onstage banter continues throughout the performance, often drowning out the principals from whom, admittedly, one yearns for distraction. Their fleeting, garbled English accents defy description, and often render much of Russell's snappy dialogue incoherent.
The show belongs to Dering, whose peculiar talents and beguiling stage presence are the evening's single excitement. In vast robes and a plastic floral headdress, he gobbles scenery, bellowing his lines one moment, squeaking them out in a child's whisper the next. His dramatic moments overtake the stage, and his comic bits dwarf the players with whom he shares them. In one scene, a dozen actors perform various orgiastic ecstasies, but Dering commands our attention when he joins a pair of dancing girls for a simple go-go routine.
Unfortunately, theatergoers rarely brave lousy plays in order to see a single performance. Here's to hoping our newest troupes will opt for better material -- and attract a wider range of talent -- in the future.
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