BY NOW, PLAYS ABOUT HOLLYWOOD AND THE VAIN, venal reputation that clings to it -- and, by association, the rest of Los Angeles -- have created their own genre of theater. Thanks to dramas and comedies from The Big Knife to Hurly Burly, from Road to Nirvana to Mizlansky/Zilinsky, the rest of the world views Southern California as a narcissistic planet of zero gravity, a stuccoed sprawl with only the Hollywood sign to announce its civic existence, instead of the kind of architectural or artistic monuments that symbolize truly great cities. And yet, because our film-identified city is, if nothing else, the place where dreams are inaugurated, "Hollywood" exerts a pull on the national psyche more profound than any monument to freedom, God or commerce.
A pair of new comedies, vastly different, vastly alike, are admirable additions to the expanding body of work that tries to explain to a suitably aghast world what it means to live and lie in L.A. Jennifer Joyce's The Dope bears all the earmarks of its Groundling Theater origin: multiple roles performed by a small ensemble adept at quick wig and costume changes, mock-cinematic narratives delivered by Angeleno characters imprisoned by their own personal mythologies -- and all crisply directed by Deanna Oliver. The show might be more aptly titled Joyce's Women, for the writer plays four wildly divergent females: amateur journalist Lottie Devine, wealthy do-gooder Babe Beecham, Gypsy rocker Durango Stone and career abuse victim Krista. Each is a needy satellite who comes into brief orbit around the figure of Jack McMahon (Victor Wilson), a self-centered macho guy whose geopolitical trajectory extends from an Army hitch in Vietnam through CIA spook work in Central America.
The raunchy, two-act fable about the needy and the greedy is mostly narrated by Lottie, a writer for the Santa Monica Daily Breeze and Brentwood Blah Blah who's overly partial to martinis and noirish similes. She's what might, in polite Vatican circles, be called an easy lay, and when she's rebuffed by Jack in a Salvadoran bar she begins to investigate his "story" in hopes of landing a Pulitzer. She learns that Jack's soft spot is women in need of rescue, although, ironically, it is his hide that gets saved in tight spots by Babe, Durango and Krista.
Like previous scripted Groundling productions (Julia Sweeney's Mea's Big Apology and John Crane's Choppy come to mind), The Dope is basically a showcase for its author-performer. Yet to leave it at that would be a grave understatement, for Joyce has cut a gemlike show that is far above most attempts in that field. She proves herself to be a veritable Lon Chaney of disguise, and more than one audience member was heard to remark that he initially thought her quartet of women was played by two different actors. Her Lottie is a wheeling, quivering tangle of mannerisms, accented by a prosthetic butt and paunch packed into tight white capris. As cogent as Joyce's own costumes are, it is the characters' facial expressions that make the show, from the curled-lip smile of cokey Durango Stone to the lipstick-gashed rictus of the cross-eyed Babe Beecham.
Joyce receives capable assistance from Wilson as the hunk-in-decline Jack, who measures his life against his favorite films (The Searchers, Sudden Impact, Die Hard and Roadhouse) and occasionally assumes the narrating chores. (Steve Pierce rounds out the cast as several minor characters.) Colin Wells' video work (which neatly runs interference for Joyce's costume changes) is some of the best in a format that is often used ill-advisedly in live theater. His segment documenting Babe's philanthropic grandstanding (distributing useless, trinket-laden gift baskets to hungry Central American children and cheerily posing with limbless, African land-mine victims) is gruesomely funny; another, depicting Jack's fantasy of Krista and a menagerie of muff-munching animals, has to, uh, be seen to be believed.
Although it's nominally three far-flung locales, The Dope's milieu is really an extended Los Angeles whose cultural grammar has colonized the world, and its characters would be for the most part unimaginable outside Los Angeles. There are the usual Industry references to film and TV personalities, cosmetic surgery and Fred Segal's; but beyond these, Joyce exhibits an uncanny ear for the cadences of L.A. speech, with its declarative sentences that end in question marks, as well as the self-delusionary assertions of people who, when asked what they stand for, blurt out such empty abstractions as "the children," "my music" or "the animals." Krista, who is perhaps the least visually affected of Joyce's characters, is especially adept at sinking into a rose-tinted cloud of words culled from the various cultures of therapy, victimhood and political correctness.
IT'S BEEN A WHILE SINCE I'VE HEARD THE SOBRIQUET "Jew fag" get a laugh onstage, but Triple Threats, now concluding at the Third Street Theater, is a show full of such pleasant surprises, a 70-minute one-act about as politically sensitive as a Ted Nugent venison barbecue. Written by actors Alec Holland and Melissa Samuels, it is a pitiless farce about an untalented "show" couple festering in the shadow of the Hollywood sign. Bruce (Holland) is an occasional catering assistant who spends his considerable free time watching daytime TV and repetitively playacting out a fantasy interview in which he recounts, variously, a youthful experience of how he landed the lead role in Pippin or, on the other hand, of how he was denied it. Shirley (Samuels) is a dancer working with a recent handicap -- the accidental severing of a foot. She currently spends time auditioning for commercials ("I play Before," she says, explaining her attempt to land a nonspeaking part in a weight-reduction ad). Besides the mirage of their breaking into show business, the couple is sustained by two more-immediate prospects: Shirley's accident settlement and the arrival of a new roommate who actually works in Hollywood as a writer and director.
From the moment focused go-getter Ken (Mark Fite) appears, Triple Threats pretty much slides into a one-joke groove, but fortunately it's the kind of joke that people love hearing over and over. As Ken attempts to hunker down in his room to polish his action-film screenplay, Bruce and Shirley contrive at every opportunity to drag him into their kitsch-packed living room; from this vantage point they hope to somehow worm their way into being cast in his film. Bruce plies Ken with potent "Naval Man on Leave" cocktails, pimpishly scheming to interest him in the hyper-shy Shirley. When all else fails, he resorts to conking Ken on the head with a skillet and chaining him up.
For a miniature work, Triple Threats boasts several charms. Holland and Samuels' script, whose crackling repartee is reminiscent of a Justin Tanner play, is above all a clever portrait of people in extreme denial. ("How'd this gay porn get here?" Shirley asks upon finding an issue of Honcho under the couch, to which the flaming Bruce answers, "I dunno . . . Weird.") And then, thanks to director Steve Rudnick's snappy pacing, the show breezes along as merrily as the best sitcoms. And yet there is such a ghastly sickness to much of the humor, this show will remain forever off-limits to mainstream tastes. Its bleak comedy is typified by the moments when Shirley removes her prosthetic foot and sniffs it prior to giving it a daily scrubbing (her cleaning kit is a box hand-lettered, "Stump Stuff") and, even more squirmily, when she and Bruce begin "improving" their roommate's script by retyping it on Ken's laptop.
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But what stays with us the most is our truly horrible contemplation of how tragically pathetic a person like Shirley has to be to lose her foot the way it's revealed she has, and to allow herself to be led by a user like Bruce. What keeps Triple Threats from sliding into a soulless parody of life in L.A., however, is the fact that Bruce may be a leech, but not a lamprey; the play ends with the couple reconciled and determined, in their own deluded way, to tackle Hollywood again by returning to the "reckless insularity" that Lytton Strachey once ascribed to Thomas Carlyle. Here it is an isolation fed by television and the couple's imperfect understanding of the entertainment industry's ever-changing buzzwords and disposable aesthetics.
Holland and Samuels have stretched what is essentially a comedy sketch into a brief evening of dark fun. Separated from Ken's stolid, solid normal-guy persona by an almost biological gulf, they might well be Ed Wood's children, characters perfectly at home in the cartoon city beneath the Hollywood sign and, as such, perfectly believable to the outside world.
THE DOPE | By JENNIFER JOYCE | At the GROUNDLING THEATER, 7307 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood | Through March 8
TRIPLE THREATS | By ALEC HOLLAND and MELISSA SAMUELS At THIRD STREET THEATER, 8140 W. Third St., West Hollywood Through February 26