Flesh Palaces

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.

This, among other vagaries, is a consequence of Gerrity's gentle, boyish charm, which made him so right to play a corporate lawyer in the musical Twist of Fate three seasons ago (at the Tiffany, also directed by Link). Here, however, his endearing qualities stir the sexual tension between Jones and Dixon into a warm porridge. Gerrity's soulful performance, with those hound-dog eyes, turns the heartbroken Jones into someone you want to hug. Which would all be very well if Jones weren't so obviously intended to come across as a Mack-the-Knife charmer of an MC, parading in white tux and top hat. To see a charismatic Brechtian reptile fall in love would be a heart-stopping plunge off a cliff. To watch Gerrity fall in love is like stepping off a curb.

There have been quite a few changes in the flesh industry since the early '70s, when Melody Jones takes place. (Most of the changes since the play's 1992 premiere at the Cast Theater have occurred in cyberspace.) Yet the allure of stripping has retained its intoxicating, prurient appeal. In the wake of Demi Moore's Striptease, there's been a flood tide of TV and video movies set in strip clubs, not to mention a renaissance of nude flesh on local legit stages, from last season's The Bacchae, to Strip: Bare-ly Legal (still running at the Hudson), to the recently opened Burning Blue (Court Theater) - the latter two packing in the gay market.

What makes Melody Jones a significant work is the way it addresses the emotional fallout as erotic tastes drift from softcore to hard (once the G-string comes off, there's no turning back) - the posing and posting of anatomies on stages, on pages or on the Web. To this extent, Melody Jones is more timely than ever, even if it does include a curiously quaint lament for the "decency" of old-fashioned vaudeville houses like Minsky's Burlesque.

As the play's advocate for the more wholesome striptease of an age gone by, a dancer named Tess (the sprightly Gloria LeRoy) - a "tit-twirler" in her 50s - bristles against the encroaching vulgarity in the profession Gypsy Rose Lee made honorable, referring specifically to a younger competitor, Brenda "the Breast" (Christina Whitaker), who, in one inspired moment on stage, inserts a bottle into whichever orifice will tolerate it. The art of stripping, Tess tells us, lies in the suspense, the tease, so betrayed by Brenda's lurid exhibition.

In theory, Tess is right, but when it comes to defending her theory, she hasn't a clue. For Brenda's bottle-in-the-hole trick is more about parody than titillation. The humor of her admittedly perverse display completely escapes Tess and, I believe, the playwrights themselves, who, without apparent irony, have the indignant Jones fire Brenda immediately following her performance. Tess means to convey that eroticism comes from the imagination, not the groin, and that the greatest effect of its presentation therefore depends on subtlety - a dubious reflection from someone who has spent the larger part of her life heaving her breasts over her shoulders as a kind of circus trick.

At least she's got the imagination part right. In his epic poem Eugene Onegin, Aleksandr Pushkin devotes at least four stanzas to worshiping his heroine's foot. The images are anything but subtle, yet they're assembled in the mind's eye by the mental process of converting marks on a page into fetishist pictures - a process not so different from "reading" video images of models masturbating and copulating. The sex industries have built their empires on wedding the imagined to the explicit, a marriage that is really about issues of power and imagined power that philosophers have been debating ever since pornography first arrived on the scene. This marriage, like Melody Jones, has less to do with flesh and blood than with telephone lines and credit cards, with walls of paper and glass.

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