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Pretty Baby

Photo by Ray Mickshaw

Travis Bickle had it backward. The antagonist of the 1976 film Taxi Driver, played by Robert De Niro, exterminated a gallery of Times Square lowlifes in order to symbolically return a lost childhood to an adolescent hooker who’d been forced to dress and talk like a seasoned whore. In 2004, such an intervention would be grounds for a serious lawsuit — from the kid. Today our TV screens and arena stages are filled with underage and underdressed girls belting out single-entendre pop lyrics — and making millions in the process. These singers’ lifestyles (whom they date, what they wear, whether they drink) are arduously examined by cadres of entertainment-media researchers and paparazzi — the girls’ navels, tan lines and emerging cleavages are scrutinized more thoroughly than the arroyos of Mars.

What the psychic toll may be on these nymphets is the subject of a new play by Angela Berliner currently on view at Actors’ Gang. The 90-minute evening looks at both a Britney Spears–like singer and a 19th-century vaudeville sensation. Both bear the play’s name, Little, and both rise to a national fame that becomes toxic. The playwright’s identical-twin sister, Jordana Berliner, performs as the vaudevillian, Little 1, while Angela plays the modern-day Little 2, the Britney/Christina/ Hilary–persona who dominates the play. Demurely costumed in hot pants, sports bra and fishnets, Little 2 nevertheless is imprisoned by her virginity, symbolized by an outsize belt that resembles a boxing champion’s but which also suggests a chastity belt.

Little 2 must deal with all the irritations of modern fame — fan expectations, weight obsessions, drug crutches, a 16-year-old stepfather and greedy offstage mom. And that damn virginity — seems that iron maidenhead of hers is never going to see the light of day. This is partly because she and her boyfriend, Jason J. (Anthony Bravo), have made a publicity pact to remain chaste until their wedding night, and partly because of a schizoid culture heavily invested in Madonna-whore icons. Little 2 has swum the trout farms and salmon runs of talent contests, had a boob job at 14 and now, two years later, is obsessed with killing herself once her cherry’s popped.

Her Victorian counterpart, however, is culled from an orphanage at age 5 and more or less sold to a rapacious impresario, Mr. Mee (Miles Stroth). By the time Little 1 turns 9, Mr. Mee insists on infantilizing his star in a kind of trajectory that is the reverse of Little 2’s, but no less perverse for its denial of biology. Dressed in a billowy flag dress, she warbles “America the Beautiful,” but eventually her career ends as she becomes too old to remain a singing-baby act.

 

Little is a well-researched piece of hand wringing that documents a particular vein of show business and the social attitudes that sustain it. However, Angela Berliner’s throw-spaghetti-against-a-wall approach simply hurls a lot of moments onstage showing how stressed out and misunderstood Little 2 is, or out-Dickenses Dickens in Little 1’s horror-house orphanage, run by a harridan unsurprisingly named Miss Bitch (Adele Robbins). But moments aren’t scenes, and without the latter, we’re left with neither narrative nor tension. Midway through the show I began to doubt the possibility of there being a second act, because so far there really hadn’t been a first act.

One of Little’s problems is that its Britney character is a passive complainer. A better strategy might have been to make Little 2’s story an odyssey of encounters through which we meet most of the people in her life only once and move on. Instead, they keep returning, so that even the show’s funniest shtick — the narcissistic dance moves of the Justin Timberlake–style Jason J. — becomes stale by his third appearance. And certainly, the continual visits by both the Littles’ downtrodden pal, Puppy (Kimo Wills), come far too often and accomplish far too little. But another problem lies in Little 2’s historical twin, Little 1 — the orphanage-spawned singer-tot’s story is not as fleshed out (or as interesting) as her 21st-century sister’s, a fact that Lindsley Allen’s repetitive, knee-pad sliding choreography makes painfully obvious. The disparity soon relegates the Victorian-era moments to a kind of period sideshow.

As a production, Little is not without strengths. Scenic designer Danila Korogodsky presents us with a powerful stage-left wall, painted deep red and adorned with small chairs and baby dolls, while upstage a tomahawk-shaped arch of reflective chrome and vanity lights terminates in a fun-house mirror. The designs for lighting (Adam H. Greene) and sound (Hoagie Hill with Adam Howarth and Shira Piven) are always crisp and punctual, while Laura Angotti’s costumes are faithful to both eras. (The bonnet in Little 1’s vaudeville Old Glory outfit even sprouts a pair of small 48-star flags.) But director Shira Piven seems reluctant to let many of the play’s moments breathe; instead, the action is rushed, like a diversion for a show lacking any depth. As the two Littles, the Berliner twins are committed to their characters even if, as young as the actors are, they are nowhere near as young as Little 2, let alone her kid analogue.

“The worst thief,” the radical labor leader “Big Bill” Haywood wrote, “is he who steals the playtime of children.” The old Wobbly, of course, was addressing the issue of brute child labor a century ago, but in her own way Angela Berliner seems to be pointing an accusatory finger at the modern theft of childhood, even as the historian’s notion of “childhood” as an idyllic construct has been debated ever since Philippe Aries’ 1962 book, Centuries of Childhood. Certainly, Little 2 is a girl who’s grown up too fast to be a mature woman yet whose fame and age can never allow her to return to a time of innocence, as imaginary as that might have been. Likewise with the even more freakish Little 1, who’s discarded like a Raggedy Ann doll after she begins menstruating.

There’s a villain pulling the strings here, and just in case we don’t get it, he wears a black cape and top hat, and lewdly strokes his walking stick while sidling up to Little 1. But by the next century or so, Mr. Mee becomes Mr. Everyman — or, more precisely, Sammy (Stroth), the songwriter who pens Little 2’s hits — lyrical yearnings as seen through the eyes of a middle-aged man pretending to be a 16-year-old girl. Playwright Berliner is canny enough to capture this in her play and obviously knows that in this day and age, pop singers dressed as jailbait hookers are smart enough to come up with that look themselves; they don’t need any prodding from men in black capes. That one of the play’s false endings is capped by a Courtney Love song acknowledges the marketing wisdom of today’s female performers.

Still, what Angela Berliner doesn’t seem to understand is that all pop personalities are partly created by audience projections — and not just those of pubescent boys or randy old horned toads. It is precisely the fantasy world of the voyeur-viewer, the inner dream lives of men and women sitting in darkened halls, that burns the aura of fame around American celebrities. There is no such scenario as one in which a neutrally dressed entertainer opens his or her mouth, and is appreciated by a crowd solely for the song. That ended the day we discovered fire, and saw swans and dragons in the night stars. Though individual talent helps, in our age of instant mythologies, it is ultimately our internalized narratives of hope and longing that we project upon our idols that make them idols. All an entertainer can do to remain sane is stare back at an audience and reply to its screams, “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Well, I’m the only one here.”

LITTLE | By ANGELA BERLINER | At ACTORS’ GANG, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through July 25 | (323) 465-0566, Ext. 15


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