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It’s good to have Petie Maxwell back, even in less than ideal circumstances. Petie’s the addled idealist with the hole in his brain—burned there by a stroke—who tilted at contemporary windmills in George F. Walker’s anarchic comedy Love and Anger 11 years ago at the Round House Theatre, and he’s tilting at them again in the troupe’s current revival.
Played once more by Jerry Whiddon, this corporate-lawyer-turned-social-activist looks only slightly the worse for a decade’s wear, and his rasp is as grating—especially to those in power—as it ever was. “The law is vulgar,” he growls as the lights come up, “just like religion,” and in the space of a mere 10 syllables, you know you’re in good hands.
A basement-dwelling Quixote who’s representing an Aldonza named Gail (Thembi Duncan) in her quest to get her husband out of jail, Petie has fixated on right-wing newspaper magnate “Babe” Conner (Michael Forrest) as his chief windmill. Conner publishes a scandal sheet that our hero claims is hellbent on making the world satisfying only “for football franchisees and real-estate developers”—a complaint that almost has to resonate with patrons who walk past blocks of interchangeable high-rises to get to Round House’s new Bethesda home. Because the publisher is the sort who hires thugs to intimidate his opponents, Petie decides on tactics just as brazen. A graffiti crusade and a little evidence-fabricating, he figures, ought to get the case started, and if they don’t do the trick, he can always threaten Connor’s lawyer (Marty Lodge).
Petie is buttressed by the knowledge that once his quest is under way, he’ll have the assistance of his put-upon, commonsensical secretary, Eleanor (Nancy Robinette), and her schizophrenic sister Sarah (Sarah Marshall)—who, when she’s not coming up with paranoid theories, is helpfully offering to wash her friends’ pizza slices in the sink. Their joint path to justice will not be terribly coherent (“There’s something about the dynamic of this particular group that keeps us from focusing”), but they will prevail.
Now, memory is tricky, and mine’s not what it once was, but I’m reasonably sure that Love and Anger prompted a good deal more laughter in 1991 than it’s prompting now. I’ve just found my review of the original, and it uses the terms “ferocious,” “uproarious,” and “harrowingly funny” to describe the proceedings, none of which would even occur to me this time out. The difference, I suspect, lies not in the staging by Daniel De Raey, who has reconceived his own original production with no appreciable reduction in invention. Nor are the new cast members surrounding Whiddon’s etched-in-acid protagonist in any way inferior to their predecessors. And if anything, the play’s social pronouncements ought to resonate with more force today than they did at the end of the decade of greed they were penned to prick.
No, what’s most different about the two productions is the performance spaces they’ve been asked to fill. The original production design, on Round House’s comparatively compact stage in Wheaton, suggested the constricted world its characters inhabited by emphasizing the cramped nature of Petie’s sub-street-level law office. Tight and confined, crammed with furniture, and with Post-it notes covering nearly every surface, the compressed area lent force to the emotional explosions that drive the plot, and made such larger-than-life types as Connor and his high-powered lawyer seem hugely threatening when they appeared.
On Round House’s broad new stage in Bethesda, the basement office is about as shallow as it was before but has to be so wide, if the side seats are to have a decent view, that the action might as well be taking place in an outdoor amphitheater. And this is despite designer Daniel Conway’s valiant attempt to hem the action in with high fencing, low ductwork, and a looming wall of detritus-filled storage units. It’s hard to imagine what else he could have done to make the space cozy, but this isn’t nearly enough. The playing area is so expansive that even with a railing and a raised platform at the rear to break it up—and a couch, filing cabinets, a desk, a soaring conveyor belt, lots of strewn trash, and six brawling characters cluttering it up—the stage seems largely empty. The visual effect is to turn Walker’s intimate story about misfits fighting the system into a battle of quasi-epic proportions.
De Raey’s staging is clever about keeping the actors moving so that patrons on either side won’t feel entirely left out of the action, but he isn’t able to modulate or vary the tone much, because his performers need to project furiously to be heard. Surprise is the chief casualty. When actors are going to make an exit, for instance, they must either telegraph that fact by starting to edge toward the door a few lines beforehand or else leave at a gallop so the trek doesn’t take forever. In a frantic Walker show, that’s not the problem it will be in, say, Chekhov (up next: The Cherry Orchard), but it’s something the company will need to address if it’s to present pieces smaller in scope than Mother Courage.
Fortunately, the performers on hand for Love and Anger are perfectly comfortable playing larger-than-life characters. Marshall’s mentally scattered Sarah holds court particularly nicely, occasionally brandishing a plunger as she thrusts and parries verbally with her saner cohorts. Forrest’s bellowing, blustering Connor and Lodge’s persuasively oily attorney are also fine. As Petie’s harried secretary, Robinette finds ways to get laughs even when lying comatose on a couch. And though Duncan must essentially play straight to these clowns as the client whose case sets the plot in motion, she’s a strong presence, too. Best of the bunch is Whiddon, whose sandpaper rasp and resolute, focused presence go a long way toward humanizing an evening that is considerably more intimate—Walker’s splendidly grand social agenda notwithstanding—than audiences might guess from this production.
It may seem odd to describe Making Porn—a largely nude theatrical novelty that owes its popularity as much to its cast’s members as to its cast members—as an old-fashioned romantic comedy, but that’s what it is. Structured as a workplace sitcom, with the workplace being a gay-porn movie set on which everyone drops trou to engage in simulated sex, Ronnie Larsen’s determinedly uninhibited romp is about as innocent as an evening in which characters wave around 20-inch dildos can be.
The plot centers on slender, puppyish college student Ricky (Finn Bryant), who regards being in gay porn as the perfect job for a gay teenager. After a dalliance with a porn star named Ray—played by actual porn star Chris Steele (with Blue Blake subbing on opening weekend, when I caught the show)—Ricky gets a chance to make his debut in a risible little epic called Cops, for which the cheapskate producer (Joe Bailey) is looking to save a few bucks on talent. Except for one star, he’s hiring a bunch of first-timers, including a well-built straight guy (well-built porn star Jim Slade), whose wife (Vanessa Vaughn) thinks he’s hard at work every day making educational videos. Ricky immediately falls for the producer’s assistant/lover (Rob Miller), and comic complications ensue for the duration of the 90-minute first act. After intermission, the mood turns darker as the author shoehorns in a little emotional ballast with a maudlin plot twist that’ll be spotted a mile off by anyone who remembers that the show is set in 1982.
Still, there’s snap to Larsen’s one-liners (“You don’t have an acting career—you have an audition career”), and they’re delivered capably enough by most of the cast. The laughs aren’t really what sells tickets, of course, but added to the novelty value of seeing genuine porn stars’ hard bodies and mostly soft penises outside the context of a gym is the play’s cottage industry of happily un-self-conscious titillation. Larsen appears to be a master of the form, incidentally. In the last eight years, he’s penned 10 evenings of a similar bent, including A Few Gay Men and The XXX-Mas Show, and he’s currently working on an opus titled Cocksucker: A Love Story. CP