Sex Trade: Three Views of Erotica
It’s hard to know how much money the 1972 porn classic Deep Throat actually made, given that it was financed by mobsters. A claim made in Anna Waronker and Charlotte Caffey’s new musical, Lovelace: A Rock Opera, puts the figure at $1 billion, though a couple of years ago, even the suggestion that the film made $600 million was called into question by the L.A. Times, which speculated that for the movie to have made even that much money, more people would have needed to see it than Star Wars. The larger point of Lovelace is that its central character, Linda Boreman (a.k.a. Lovelace) — a poster child for domestic abuse by her husband/pimp, Chuck Traynor — saw not a dime of that money. She was trafficked in the name of a sexual “revolution.” Even her $1,200 fee was taken by Traynor. The blow-back from an antiporn censorship campaign by the Nixon administration helped to put Deep Throat on the map, turning it into a chic cultural phenomenon and paving the way for the mainstreaming of pornography, which remains the most profitable industry on the Web.
The Deep Throat phenomenon was always something of a paradox: The feminist movement, with Andrea Dworkin at the helm, argued that the kind of sexual revolution the mysogynistic film embodied was just a front for the slavery of women, while its supporters claimed that it helped to set us all free — or at least freer.
Lovelace: A Rock Opera is one of three productions on local stages by which you can track the sexual revolution’s murky path. Another musical that just opened at the Stella Adler in Hollywood for a short run is a revival of The Life, a 1997 Broadway show featuring the familiar musical stylings of Cy Coleman. Meanwhile, the Two Roads Theater in Toluca Lake is premiering a new, contemporary wife-swapping comedy by Jeff Gould, called It’s Just Sex.
Lovelace: A Rock Opera is actually a morality play, entirely sung (Waronker and Caffey’s score and lyrics have both musical and literary sophistication), which attempts to straighten out the mixed messages sent by the late Boreman in her various writings and interviews — from celebrating her life in porn to testifying against pornography in general and against the sadism of Traynor in particular. (There’s evidence that Traynor may have coerced Boreman to participate in acts of bestiality, not referred to in the musical.)
The villains here are evil incarnate, particularly the greasy Traynor (Jimmy Swan), who turns on the adoring, submissive woman-child he rescued from an emotionally brutal mother (Whitney Allen) who is almost as horrible as he is. In one scene, after Linda has fled her marriage (whose honeymoon consisted of a gang rape — “There’s some gentlemen I want you to meet”), Traynor and his mother-in-law collaborate to force the runaway bride to return to her husband, despite her pleading to her mom that he made her “fuck other men.”
Ken Sawyer stages a tableaux-laced spectacle that’s entirely sung to recorded accompaniment. The absence of any live musicians in a rock opera is the one cheesy aspect to this otherwise elegant portrayal of slavery and redemption. The production hangs on Katrina Lenk’s riveting portrayal of Lovelace, which goes beyond the rich timbre of her singing. In the flicker of an eye, and the comportment of her limbs, she exhibits an eagerness to please and a hunger to live out a picket-fence fantasy of “home” that cuts to the very marrow of her bones, and ours. It’s a performance so good, it makes you understand why Little Red Riding Hood has endured the centuries. Once her consciousness is awakened, as the feminists used to say, she’s a woman on the run psychologically, and sometimes physically, from the wolves.
The human-trafficking experts talk about the difficulty of obtaining cooperation from victims because of the way they participate in their own exploitation, but those nuances aren’t here, because this is really just a rudimentary fairy tale about slavery, and breaking free.
You can hear the jazzy, gospel-laced echoes of Chicago and Cabaret in Cy Coleman’s score for The Life, being given its L.A. premiere by Jaxx Theatricals. Amid an array of pimps and hookers working the streets of 1980s Times Square, David Newman, Ira Gasman and Coleman’s book focuses on two hookers, one on the way up, Mary (Stephanie Girard), and one on the way down, Queen (Dionne Gipson). The arrival of Mary, fleeing domestic abuse in Minnesota by Greyhound, crosses the saga of Lovelace with A Star Is Born. She’s a perky blonde, a girl-next-door type who, lured by affection and attention, hooks up with lowly pimp Fleetwood (Robert Gee) before leaving him in the dust by entering the comparatively upscale stable of pimp Memphis (David St. Louis). And she seems quite happy to do so.
Meanwhile, Queen has remained loyal to Fleetwood — with similar, Lovelacean visions of “home,” while he stuffs her profits up his nose. It’s her loyalty and her domesticity that are holding her back, for a while, until her exasperation leads her, too, into bed with the wolf Memphis. The dynamic between Memphis and Queen looks a whole lot like that between Traynor and Lovelace — slaps in the face, kicks in the ribs. She too wants out, fast, and is held at gunpoint against her will.
Queen’s tale turns tragic, in an operatically romantic way, which is where The Life parts ways with the urbane cynicism of Chicago (and the sneer that sharpened its point of view), while Mary’s story, of a woman using her exploitation for her own brand of freedom, makes things ideologically sticky and interesting. Joe Greene directs a buffed production that features a great onstage band and some great voices, which occasionally slip out of key. When Gipson goes into softer intonations, her tone echoes that of Bette Midler; St. Louis’ Memphis carries a profundo basso, and Cheryl Murphy-Johnson as a fellow sex worker sends some gospel stylings all the way down Hollywood Boulevard. Paul Romero’s flashy, Fosse-like choreography has the 18-member ensemble swaying and twitching like an organism.
Jeff Gould’s contemporary comedy about three married couples, It’s Just Sex,exposes the underpinnings of sexual fantasy, fidelity and money, which give currency to Lovelace and The Life. The wife-swapping plot is straight out of Hugh Hefner’s pad circa 1975. With martinis served with cocktail napkins that have sleazy jokes printed on them, and some spicy peanuts, we’d be set for the oldest new play on the block. That the play resonates in 2008, in the ashes of the sexual revolution, is one indication of how little has changed, despite how much has changed.
Phil (Matt Gerald) hires a prostitute (Natalia Fabia) who is mid-lap-dance when Phil’s wife, Joan (Jamie Rose), wanders into the living room. The hooker slips out into the night while Joan sprays the area with air-freshener. Phil’s lame “I’m sorry” got a huge laugh from the audience, and Joan’s maniacal polishing of the living room table for guests who are about to arrive sets the stage for a tale of revenge, which blends the sick party games of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor.
“She’s just a hooker!” Phil tries to explain, earning Joan’s withering reply: “Not everyone can grow up to be president.”
When the two couples arrive, Joan proposes swapping — clearly for the purpose of upsetting her jealous spouse. Via Gould’s tried-and-true device of liquoring everyone up, the masks of civility don’t completely drop, but they do slip, substantially, revealing some insights into what fidelity and marriage really mean.
Greg (Sean Kana) and Lisa (Gillian Shure) need to work out the underlying cause of his performance problems, which point in the direction of her success as a lawyer, her controlling temperament and plausible denials. Meanwhile Carl (Orien Richman) has a world-wise acceptance of his wife’s (Betsy Russell) recent affair, so long as it doesn’t seriously threaten their marriage. Every marriage is an arranged marriage.
Mark Blanchard directs the sitcom with his own brand of polish, revealing not so much characters as aspects of love and trust, which permeate the culture. Meanwhile, the actors infuse those aspects with at least a couple of layers of subtext, humanity and some very good timing.
LOVELACE: A ROCK OPERA | By ANNA WARONKER AND CHARLOTTE CAFFEY | Presented by the HAYWORTH THEATER, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. | Through February 1 | (323) 960-4442
THE LIFE | By DAVID NEWMAN, IRA GASMAN and CY COLEMAN | Presented by JAXX THEATRICALS at the STELLA ADLER THEATER, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd. | Through December 21 | jaxxtheatricals.com
IT’S JUST SEX | By JEFF GOULD | At the TWO ROADS THEATER, 4348 Tujunga Ave., Toluca Lake | Through February 1 | (818) 762-2282