By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Los Angeles is a city of back yards — private spaces where people nurture their dreams, share secrets with friends . . . maybe pee in a planter filled with kitty litter. That’s what happens every Sunday in June in the back yard of Mark Hansen and Carey Kienitz. Along with a small group of DIY aficionados, the two have staged a lawn-chair theater production called Sex on a Submarine.
As night falls, the sounds of Jimmy Smith, Melissa Manchester, Harry Nilsson, and Seals and Crofts greet invitees, who fill up on Two-Buck Chuck before descending to the theater behind Hansen and Kienitz’s rented Las Palmas Avenue bungalow. Plastic lawn chairs are lined in front of a homemade stage, on which a tiki bar hides the keyboard section of a rock orchestra assembled in the rear. Dog barks and hoop sounds drift over from neighboring driveways and yards. There is a whiff of urine mixed with carpet freshener emanating from a homemade latrine in a corner of the yard (“Number One Only, Please,” reads a sign). Christmas lights around the yard brighten in the fading twilight as Hollywood Turks size up the scene.
“I can’t believe they built this stage!” exclaims a female producer after loudly telling her friends why Donald Trump needs his own cable show.
“They finally went and did it . . . a musical,” says her friend.
“Actually, it’s a sexual rock opera,” replies their male companion with an air of authority.
Kienitz emerges from the Green Room — an area behind a large tarp to the right of the stage — to inform a guest she is sitting in a seat reserved for “Mr. Burt Reynolds.”
The surprisingly high-tech production grew from a smaller piece of absurdist theater that Kienitz and Hansen produced in their Koreatown apartment in 1999. They moved to the Las Palmas bungalow in 2003 so they could build a larger stage. Years ago they accepted the long odds of making it in the entertainment business, after an agent dubbed them “the next Matt and Trey,” referring to South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. A script titled Les Brody’s Happy Hour, set in the drunk tank at the Glendale jail, and a script for a show about a one-armed Swedish lion tamer who fancies lemon-yellow jump suits failed to launch their careers. Now comedy mavens, friends and hipsters flock to their backyard to taste inspiration in its purest form.
“We’ve always done stupid projects, and there’s plenty we never did,” says Hansen, “but we couldn’t fold up until we had achieved at least one colossal failure.” As an emotional incentive, Kienitz is moving to Portland in a week, ending an era of collaboration that has resulted in what Hansen calls an “astonishingly limited amount of actual work.”
Sex on a Submarine begins with a Planet of the Apes video in which a scientist examines the “infinite regression” of a painting of an artist painting a picture of an artist painting a picture of an artist (and so on) who is painting a landscape. Introspection turns to confession as Kienitz and Hansen play an acoustic number in which Hansen tells women in the audience that, if they are reasonably attractive and he has met them, he likely has masturbated to them. A soulful rock score is played by keyboardist/guitarist Luke Tierney, guitarist Nico Aglietti and bassist Airin Older, with Jeff Gross on keys and Jesse Hoy on percussion. The curtain rises and the protagonist, Earl Bell, enters, wearing a Westchester High School jacket, a Houston Oilers cap and a Britney Spears microphone headset. A look of vulnerability crosses his face. He tells his story.
Played by veteran stage actor Don Schlossman, Bell is a soul-searcher who loses his virginity in the front seat of his Datsun 280-Z to a girl named Maggie, who dumps him to move to Hollywood to become a star.
“Imagine that,” he says to a smattering of self-conscious laughter, his knobby chin gleaming in the lights. In his effort to regain Maggie’s love, Bell fears waking up one day at age 70 to realize he wasted his life. So, after living in seclusion and ballooning up to 318 pounds, he embraces “The Plan”: snorting Dexedrine, eating cold rice and peanuts, and masturbating on a schedule, five times a day, while training to become the world’s greatest pole-vaulter.
A subsequent Olympic appearance gets foiled by a Dexedrine-, cocaine- and Malibu Rum–fueled encounter with comedian Louie Anderson, which, among other things, leads to a short-lived quilting career, a failure with Big Brothers of America, and a humiliating episode in which he chains himself to a tree to save it until angry black activists inform him that the tree was used in the 1920s for lynchings, rapes and Colonel Sanders’ second wedding.
Bell’s journey also includes a tryout with the Power Team, a Trinity Broadcast Network show in which Christian musclemen channel Jesus while breaking stuff. “God was all up in my grill,” he says, explaining that his persistent erection has been transformed into a “spiritual boner.” His final revelation — that Maggie will never be his — is painful. Yet with the help of mentor Larry Wojowowksi and some classic-rock power chords compliments of .38 Special, he finds acceptance and cops to his self-indulgence. “Everyone has their shit. You gotta keep rolling the dice. One of these times you’re gonna roll a Yahtzee!”
After the curtain goes down, audience members trudge off to prepare for their mundane studio jobs, while the cast of Sex on a Submarine, including cameraman and construction expert Jimmy Dunn and electrician JJ Atkison, who plays Wojowowski, the proprietor of the Temple City Frisbee Co., hangs out to party.
“It’s cool to see people put their money where their mouth is,” says musical director Tierney of his friends’ tour de force, which is packing the back yard each week but costing hundreds of dollars in equipment rentals. “Plus, it’s fun to hold a mirror up to the audience.”