Behind the Velvet Rope
After carefully dissecting a burrito, Sandra Tsing Loh sets down her plastic fork, wipes her mouth, then states matter-of-factly: "I'd be the first to say, I've provided many experiences of unsatisfactory sex for other people."
This admission might seem more apt to surface within the confines of a psychoanalyst's office - not during casual conversation at an outdoor fast-food restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. But Loh has made a career out of publicizing her mishaps. "If something embarrassing happens to me, I have to share it. That's my modus operandi."
Loh's doing a fine job of sharing. Her new solo show, Bad Sex With Bud Kemp, chronicles the dating exploits of her early 30s, when "most of the single men in L.A. are too tired to leave the house and yet too tired to get married." Loh clarifies: "It's not a man-hating show. These are just my experiences. Someone could do a show called Bad Sex With Sandra Loh and it would be totally justified."
Loh's self-deprecation is integral to the lovable-loser, chin-up, Charlie Brown persona that has made her a sort of spokes-person for the artsy underdogs of L.A. - the NPR/Trader Joe's demographic. "You know, sandals, cheese, a nice piece of butcher block makes you whole. It's BMW taste on a Honda budget." These are the people who make up "the B-list" in L.A.: residents from the other side of the hill, who drive second-rate cars without air conditioning, and for whom a screwdriver is an essential part of buying new furniture.
No doubt, the "pear-shaped" Bud Kemp, a pharmaceutical marketing manager, is on this list. He's the last single man left in Loh's social group, and not coincidentally, they are drawn to each other. Soon "things get hot, in a lukewarm sort of way," and Loh finds herself asking, "Could this Bud Kemp be used for sex?"
In the show, Loh regales us with stories, punctuating her thoughts with a snap of her fingers - cues for visual aids that pop out of the wall to illustrate the memories. Like the wilted, haphazard floral arrangement Bud sends her after an evening of, well, no sex at all.
Given the title, it's odd how little sex - bad or good - there is in the show: just a brief stint with Tony the Pony, an inarticulate Brooklyn welterweight boxer, and a lesbian fantasy that involves Jacqueline Bisset shipwrecked on a desert island. "It probably has the least sex of any show with sex in the title," Loh admits. But in the end, sex isn't really the point. The show is about dating, and ultimately about settling. It proffers a romantic ideal in a '90s, "Chicken Soup for the Soul" sort of way - that the simple pleasures are what matters, like giving your partner small gifts. Such as sleep. (Though "the flip side of that is," Loh notes, "if you're giving your partner too much of the gift of sleep, you're not having sex at all!")
Settling, for Loh, isn't about compromise as much as it is about acceptance. "Mass media is purveying images of people who are all pretty gorgeous. If you keep chasing an ideal that's total fantasy, that causes a lot of pain. I'm hoping, on TV, to one day see a romantic lead guy with male pattern baldness . . . or a hairy back."
Bad Sex came out of a short story Loh wrote in her 20s, when she and her friends had their futures all mapped out: "We thought we'd write short stories and get them into a collection . . . fashion spread in Esquire . . . million-dollar book deal . . . movie deal. Wrong. It was like[nasal, whiny voice], 'Why are my short stories not getting published?'"
Loh's theory is that her subject matter of choice - dating - worked against her. "Relationships are considered not important," she says. "If you're trying to get into literary magazines, stories about relationships are just not going to get in there unless they're about anal rape, or incest." Not having those topics to mine, fortunately, she resurrected the dating story and developed it as a theater piece with director David Schweizer.
Though the show draws on her experiences of a decade ago, Loh's fears about dating are timeless. "I was totally confused by dating - I must have terrified men. I found myself pulling up stockings under a tight denim dress, with heels, big hair, bangs, and going, 'Who am I?'" Her idea of romance was much more low-key. "I found something very scary about the sushi dinner/MOCA opening/Friday-night date in the city. I always thought the best first date would be playing Scrabble in your pajamas with a bottle of Stoli. You know, let's just cut right to the point."
Loh is now working on a screenplay for DreamWorks and two TV pilots, both about - surprise - the humorous underside of dating. Now that she can afford copper pots and dental insurance, what's left for Loh to write about? "It's a reality I have much more traffic with Hollywood people," but she insists that humiliations still happen daily - "they just get deeper." Success has brought its own set of problems. "There's an honest confusion over who's the person and who's the work."
And then there are the little annoyances, like fan mail. "You always pray that you get: 'You are a goddess. Everything you write is perfect.' But you almost never get that. You get: 'Hey, I heard your commentary on shoehorns the other day, and I thought it was great. I have a very funny story about shoehorns . . .' and then it's two pages about them!"
Still, Loh responds to every letter, and she tries not to take Hollywood for granted. "It's kind of a relief to actually be making money. The 11th guy sitting at the end of the bar on Cheers falling into his beer has a better chance of getting on Oprah publicizing his cookbook than a brilliant first-time novelist."
Aside from the fact that she now feels successful enough to be a target ("It's kinda like the Kenneth Starr report - you pick up some newsprint stuck to your shoe at the deli and go, 'Aah - my god, what did I do today?'"), Loh says she'll remain on the B-list, describing it as a quintessential Los Angeles experience.
"In L.A., you're always outside of something: You're not invited to the good party. You're at the good party, but you can't get into the VIP room. You're in the VIP room, Robert Redford was just here - you missed him. Even celebrities . . . they were on the cover of People, but they didn't get the 10-page spread, they only got the 4-page spread. There's always this velvet rope you can't quite get beyond."
No matter which side of the rope Loh stands on, there seems to be no shortage of humiliation in her life to capitalize on, and to share. Self-indulgent, yes, but also universal.
"If something happens to me that's painful or awful, it's important to get it out there because, mostly, other people have felt it too." Like bad sex. "Getting into bed drunk and not being able to complete . . . these are very human things. And I find that hysterical."
Bad Sex With Bud Kemp continues at the Tiffany through November 15.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Los Angeles.