By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Yes, it's true that Dan Gerrity and Jeremy Lawrence's Melody Jones (in a return engagement at Theatre/Theater) is set entirely in a Buffalo, New York, strip club, and that the stage is filled with skin and all manner of "exotic" dancing. The club's employees spend much of the play speaking directly to the audience, ruminating on their professions and their home lives - stripping their "lowlife souls bare," to quote a press release. It's also true that set designer John Hagen has created the club - its platform stage, its full bar, its tinsel-curtain partitions and its exposed upstage dressing room - with seedy, glittering verisimilitude, all under Ken Booth's atmospherically cheesy lighting design.
In Ron Link's sleek, thoughtful production, Leslie Sachs portrays a hyperactive go-go dancer who gyrates with passion-killing velocity and whose stream of verbiage is laced with Roman Catholic iconography. The drummer (Antony Alda) speaks touchingly about his fall from grace as a classical pianist, while the bartender (Matt McKenzie, with a downhome Bronx charm), amid more divulgences than we need to know about his bathing habits and bowel movements, endearingly proffers a love story: his mutually caring and erotic marriage-made-in- heaven. He speaks poetically of preconscious, predawn sex with his wife, an ode to the curves of her buttocks, while on the other side of the stage we see one of the male cast lying nude on his stomach, rump akimbo. The visual juxtaposition is a coup de theatre by Link, exposing the androgynous essence of erotic shapes. Throughout all this, Stephanie Blake - a sultry redheaded beauty (and career stripper) - performs impressive rubber-muscle contortions in bangled G-string and other amatory attire.
But Melody Jones isn't really about stripping at all. Its characters' unsolicited confessions are like spokes that project from a hub, but aren't always secured to the rim of a wheel, which can make for a wobbly ride. (I'd take that ride again, though, if only for the enchantment of the ideas and the richness of the scenery.) Despite its flash and flesh, the play is just an old-fashioned love song, a Byronic tragedy based on David Galloway's novel about three things that combine to lift it above the prosaic or merely titillating.
First is the congenitally deformed left hand of its eponymous hero (Gerrity), the club's proprietor. This twisted appendage is not only a metaphor for his soul - and, perhaps, for the soul of America - it also lands Mr. Jones at the same romantic address as the Elephant Man and the Phantom of the Opera, reaching for love from behind the veil of disfigurement.
Second, the club is actually a cover for gay pickups, its clientele a "mixed" crowd, creating a context that instantly blurs distinctions between masculine and feminine. (Loren Freeman has a rambunctious good time as an aging, jealous queen who shrieks nasally outside the club's bathroom, editorializes contemptuously on Jones' withered hand, and gropes bewildered young men who are either uninterested in, or repelled by, his advances.)
Third, and most important, is the sheet of glass near the back of the club, which serves as the two-way mirror through which Jones spies upon the antics of his customers and staff from his apartment on the other side. Jones is a voyeur's voyeur - a fetish that, owing to our attendance at the theater, includes us.
In actuality, we have to imagine the glass, since it appears as just a gilded frame. Yet its invisibility makes it even more pertinent. The glass barrier emerges as the play's looming, central symbol of our compartmentalized lives. Behind it, Jones fails to recognize the difference between his privacy and his isolation, how this barrier divides him from himself, his love from his lust, leaving him utterly alone.
The story tracks how, after years of cavalier flings, Jones finds himself smitten with a younger, married man named Dixon (Jimmy Shaw), whose wife is briefly out of town and who is himself weighing the cost to his marriage of clandestine homosexual yearnings. A postcoital argument between Dixon and Jones reveals a crucial incident (so crucial it probably would have been better enacted than described) in which Dixon discovered Jones' gay pornographic-magazine collection, shortly after which Jones walked in on Dixon while he was masturbating to the images - a double discovery that pierced Jones' already fragile self-esteem.
Later in the course of their brief affair, when Dixon's wife is about to return, the young man casts about for a means to keep his association with Jones alive. Jones suggests that Dixon find a youth to seduce, with the stipulation that during this new physical liaison, Dixon imagine his lover as Jones, while Jones secretly watches their lovemaking. Dixon dismisses the idea as a kind of kinky revenge, but Jones insists that he wants to be imagined as "better" than he is. If Jones' appeal is in earnest, it's a telling caution against idealized images found in porno (and fashion mags), and their pernicious influence upon self-respect and, by extension, romantic attraction. But it's also possible that Jones, realizing that his suggestion is way out of Dixon's depth, may just be looking for a way to brush him off. It's hard to tell.