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The Deep Throat Sex Scandal Celebrates a Famous First Amendment Victory But Ignores the Bigger Issue

Natasha Charles Parker, right, as Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace, and Veronica Hart as her fellow performer Shana Babcock
Natasha Charles Parker, right, as Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace, and Veronica Hart as her fellow performer Shana Babcock
PHOTO BY ED KRIEGER

There are a number of reasons why it's hard to get all warm and fuzzy about porn as a poster child for the First Amendment. Maybe it has something to do with porn's connections to prostitution, organized crime and human trafficking. Or maybe it's to do with so many sexting-suicide connections, or our hypersexualized culture, which has turned street-whore chic into a glam marketing staple and put pressure on confused teen girls to wax every corner of their bodies, to give out or get dumped.

Some of this trend derives from the now multibillion-dollar porn industry and its emergence from the margins of our culture into the mainstream. This emergence, under the protection of the First Amendment, is largely celebrated in writer-producer David Bertolino's The Deep Throat Sex Scandal, which opened last week at the Zephyr Theatre.

The play is a comedy that takes a satirical look at how 1972 porn flick Deep Throat, itself a comedy, became the most lucrative blue movie made, thanks to the idiocy of the U.S. Justice Department and its efforts to quash Deep Throat under then-president Richard Nixon's anti-smut campaign. After the arrest of the flick's male star, Harry Reems, on charges of distributing obscene materials across state lines — though Reems had no control over how or where the movie was screened — what would have been another flop in a then-seamy Times Square adult movie theater became a First Amendment cause celebre for the likes of Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, who must have imagined that their freedom to appear in somewhat sexual but comparatively legit films might easily be in the target of the Justice Department, should the charges against Reems stick.

When even Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis admitted to having seen Deep Throat, the floodgates of popular acclaim swung open. There was, after all, a sexual revolution under way. It was the moralists, not the pornographers, who were being marginalized.

Furthermore, after Deep Throat was released, the Supreme Court had loosened its obscenity standards in the 1973 case Miller v. California, from "no socially redeeming value" to — among three criteria — whether "the average person, applying contemporary community standards," would find the work prurient. The feds tried Reems in Memphis (where Deep Throat had never screened), in hopes it would fail the "community standards" test, since that criterion for obscenity likely would crumble in New York City, where Deep Throat premiered.

Among the government's numerous missteps, documented in the play, was trying Reems under the 1973 standard, when the movie came out in 1972. They might have had a stronger case had they done it correctly, under the earlier standard, trying to prove the movie had no redeeming social value. But by the time the case got kicked back to Memphis on appeal, Nixon's reputation, along with his anti-smut campaign, was in tatters, and everyone decided to forget about it and move on. After all, in the larger scheme of things, how much is dwelling on a blow job really worth? Ask Bill Clinton.

To its credit, the play doesn't back away from the organized-crime connections of Deep Throat director Gerry Damiano (played by porn veteran Herschel Savage). In one scene, revolver-wielding "Vito" (Bart Tangredi) has a little chat with Damiano, gently persuading Damiano to sign away his contracted share in the movie's profits, once its popularity is a given. The play also has some fun with Damiano, showing how in all seriousness he regards himself as being in the same club as Hitchcock, Welles and Kurosawa.

Nor does the play sidestep the physical and emotional abuse of the movie's star, Linda Lovelace (Natasha Charles Parker), by her control-freak husband-pimp, Chuck Traynor (Alec Tomkiw), who also pocketed her share of the movie's enormous earnings.

What the play does best, however, is demonstrate the changing cultural standards for what's taboo. In the mid-20th century, fellatio was generally regarded as perverted, and sodomy beneath contempt. Today, with gay marriage gaining acceptance in the courts and in polls nationwide, what's taken to be "obscene" in one era becomes almost quaint in another.

Still, the play is determined to propel the dubious argument that the outcome of the Reems Monkey Trial was a beacon of justice and social advancement. The production, in Jerry Douglas' staging, projects images of movie posters, magazine and book covers of quasi-salacious yet now legitimate publications that may contain some artistic merit but might otherwise have been banned were it not for the trial of Harry Reems.

Yet even in the production's own depiction of Reems (in a capable, wide-eyed performance by Marc Ginsburg), the guy — a struggling stage actor until porn opened its arms to him — propelled himself through life on the blended fuel of expedience, libido and desperation. His court victory was hardly a consequence of his righteousness but of the incompetence and hypocrisy of judges, prosecutors and persecutors at all levels of our government. Aside from Nixon's own Deep Throat debacle of Watergate, his case against Reems was largely guided by Charles Keating (here played by Tangredi), founder of Citizens for Decent Literature and a Nixon appointee to the Commission on Pornography and Obscenity. Keating later would plead guilty to wire fraud and bankruptcy fraud counts related to his business practices in the savings and loan scandal of the 1980s, and serve four and half years in prison. Beware the righteous, the play winkingly admonishes.

An earlier stage work about Deep Throat, which played at the Hayworth Theatre in 2008 — Anna Waronker and Charlotte Caffey's Lovelace: A Rock Opera — made its thematic anchors the seamy, abused life of its female protagonist, and her eventual anti-porn crusade. The differences between that work and this one lie in the differences between the genders of the protagonists (and, perhaps, of the authors). The unarguable titillation of porn is rarely kind to women, as performers or viewers, despite the depiction in The Deep Throat Sex Scandal of loving support by Lovelace's co-performer, Shana Babcock (Veronica Hart), and her determination to help Lovelace break free of her awful husband.

As Babcock, Reems, Damiano and Traynor, actors Hart, Ginsburg, Savage and Tomkiw are on dramatic comedy terra firma. But director Douglas can't prevent some supporting performances from lurching into sketch comedy, and the clash is grating. What saves it is Parker's ever-so-nuanced Lovelace. Aside from her physical resemblance to the late star, and amidst her submissive veneer, Parker captures the flickerings of a woman who will, in time, exact her revenge on the entire industry.

In the performance I saw, Sally Kirkland and Bruce Vilanch turned in cameos as, respectively, an aging porn queen–turned–ticket taker and the Memphis judge. In future shows, those roles will be played by Nina Hartley and Christopher Knight and by Georgina Spelvin and Christian Mann.

The mainstreaming of porn is a conundrum. With no apologies for the repression and hypocrisy it replaced, I'm not convinced that it has made us a healthier society but rather that we've replaced one set of savageries for another. This is what The Deep Throat Sex Scandal so doggedly ignores, as though monetizing and wrapping ourselves in sexual fantasies makes us either more connected to each other, or more free.

THE DEEP THROAT SEX SCANDAL | By David Bertolino | Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd. | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Feb. 17 | (800) 838-3006 | deepthroattheplay.com

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