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Field of Wet Dreams 

Build it and they will cum

Wednesday, Dec 6 2000
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There once was a time when sex was dirty, a time, you could say, when the word fuck really meant something. Then, in the early 1970s, sex became hip, clinical, liberating, ironic -- for which we can give some dubious thanks to the Mitchell brothers, Jim and Artie. Like Hugh Hefner and Russ Meyer before them, these Sacramento Delta boys parlayed a little cash and our repressed society’s secret desires into an empire built on T&A -- first through groundbreaking skin flicks that, like their Behind the Green Door, featured plot-driven scripts and penetration, and later from a string of watch-and-fondle nightclubs anchored by San Francisco‘s O’Farrell Theater. Along the way the brothers caught lots of legal heat, expanded free-speech boundaries and made tons of money before their world imploded in a firestorm of drugs and paranoia. In 1991, Jim shot Artie dead at the latter‘s Marin County home, a crime for which he served three years in prison.

Cintra Wilson’s play XXX Love Act, presented by the Actors‘ Gang, may not have quite as much plot as one of Jim and Artie’s films, but it has a fine old time, nevertheless, reveling in the brothers‘ excesses. We meet the two fictionalized characters in the form of Manny and Randy O’Farrell (Kirk Ward and Kyle Gass) -- first as geeky teens with long, frizzy hair and roving eyes for magazines with centerfolds, then as geeky young men with receding frizzy hair and roving eyes for ”talent“ (in the form of the strippers and stag-film ingenues they hire for their cinematic sex epics). The hyper-extroverted Randy, who is the brains and auteur of the enterprise, falls in love with a girlie-voiced blond named Frisky (Victoria Cunningham), while shy, bumbling Manny is smitten by Persephone (Susan Dalian), whom he steals from her lesbian lover, Angel (Rebecca Gray).

In addition to the women in the brothers‘ lives, the play features two strange characters named Gunther and Reinholdt (Arthur Hanket and Michael Rivkin), a pair of garrulous toffs who sport late-18th-century-fop ware -- with skirts and fishnet stockings. They both comment on the bawdy proceedings and participate in them, and, while it’s never clear exactly who or what they are, they become indispensable to the mise en scene. (In the play‘s earlier versions, the two apparently represented the maverick journalists Hunter S. Thompson and Warren Hinckle, both of whom were friends of the brothers.)

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For a time, the brothers are successful, although something goes wrong at the Cannes Film Festival. We’re not sure precisely what problem les freres O‘Farrell experienced, beyond, perhaps, traditional Gallic frostiness (although, in fact, Behind the Green Door received a standing ovation), but it causes Randy to drink even more than usual.

”Ah ha!“ we think. ”Randy’s hitting the skids.“ But, no, once back in the USA, the brothers go on to greater fame as they open the first of their live-sex clubs -- or rather, nightclubs where men pay big bucks to watch chicks take showers or to touch their nether parts. Oddly enough, the O‘Farrells, unlike their real-life counterparts, never experience legal difficulties. (Nor, for that matter, do we ever get a flavor for Artie Mitchell’s brutality against his wife and girlfriends.) Instead, Wilson boards them on that bullet train bound straight for hell, as Randy indulges in greater drug- and booze-scapades while, perhaps even worse, Manny grows more responsible and businesslike, which only pushes Persephone away from him.

It all leads to the Cain and Abel denouement we‘ve been primed for since the start. In a sense, there are no story surprises in Wilson’s play, mostly because there are no turning points; the characters are laid out in the beginning and simply become more of what they already are, or change without the benefit of epiphanies. The story‘s strengths are found in its delirious moments of debauchery: Gunther’s mishap with a penis enlarger, Randy having his way with the Golden Gate Bridge. What Wilson seems really interested in portraying is a boy‘s paradise that is spoiled by the onset of puberty and women.

Randy and Manny are, after all, happiest when we first meet them as horny young kids. Their porn Camelot is a prolonged adolescent wet dream in which images of women (and real women themselves) are manipulated and controlled to the brothers’ liking. Their live-sex club is a swinging version of a clubhouse or fort from a boyhood past -- a boyhood that comes to a crashing end when girls are allowed too far inside their lives.

Beyond this, XXX Love Act is a commentary on the often shabby pretensions of ”art“ and its practitioners. Everyone knows how the early grind-film houses were self-proclaimed ”art theaters“; the Mitchell brothers, as working-class joes exposed to a little book learning at San Francisco State University, were nothing if not ambivalent toward culture. On the one hand, they were pranksters who giddily mocked and exploited the aspirations and hypocrisies of middle-class society; yet in a very real way they also subscribed to the authority of high art -- or rather, to its power to confer legitimacy upon pornography and its producers. Throughout the play, Randy expresses a fervor for making pornography tasteful enough to be respectable, while disdaining the ”raincoat crowd“ who were smut‘s traditional consumer base.

But the main target of Wilson’s show is the venerable American success story -- how easy it is, once money is involved, for fratricide to rear its frizzy head, and how much more easily that is likely to happen once the accelerants of sex and drugs are tossed onto the pyre. For all the money the brothers -- actual and fictitious -- invested to make fucking a guiltless, liberating, velour-soft experience, in the end they hit the gutter as hard as any wino kicked out of a peep-show booth.

Director Mark Seldis works wonders with this 90-minute play which, in earlier incarnations, ran two and a half hours. Perhaps the Magic Theater‘s premiere production carried more historical explanations about the brothers’ lives. With set and lighting designer Don Luce transforming the Gang‘s tiny El Centro space into a dark, intimate club venue with cabaret-table seating (one wall is covered by a curtain of Mylar-ribbon, another sports what might be considered trophy dildos), Seldis orchestrates a dense vortex of psychological turbulence; he also finesses the awkward nuances of people desperately trying to connect with each other, as in a wonderfully sad scene in which a coked-up Manny nervously tries to put the moves on Persephone. Dividing the house is a cock-and-balls-shaped dance runway -- talk about your thrust stage. A pre-show of pole dancing by understudies Heather Ashton and RoseofSharon Stoneall nicely eases us into the play’s environment, whose fateful momentum is constantly kept on pace by John Zalewski‘s somber sound design. The cast members ably assume their roles, with Gray in particular attuned to her character’s heartaches, and Hanket and Rivkin taking special glee in their oddball personae. (On the night I attended, Tom Booker subbed for Gass as Randy.)

The show features only scant nudity and some silhouetted lovemaking, and, for all the talk of cocks and fellatio, the only real gagging comes when the actors have to wrap their mouths around lines like ”I miss us. I miss what we had“ and its rejoinding ”You‘re the only person to get to my heart.“ That notwithstanding, this is an evening that stares at what can and does go wrong when the flesh is willing, and to that long-ago time when people looked to sex and columns of cocaine as the keys to ultimate freedom. For, as the Mitchell brothers found, what often lies behind the green door is madness and death.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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