Screw Ball

HotCity gets intimately acquainted with Adult Entertainment

Apr 20, 2005 at 4:00 am
What a stupendous theater week this is! Not only is the enthralling Big River on view at the Fox, but after a five-month hiatus following its knockout inaugural production of The Exonerated, HotCity Theatre is back with another winner. If there's any justice in the world (and The Exonerated persuaded us there isn't), Adult Entertainment, Elaine May's wicked spoof of the porno movie industry, should become the hottest theater ticket in town.

Think Boogie Nights with a sense of the ridiculous. After the death of their mentor movie director, four XXX film stars -- Heidi-the-Ho, Frosty Moons, Vixen Fox and the beefy Jimbo -- decide to produce their own blue movie. The deceased director's brother Guy has inherited the shabby garage studio and filming equipment, so he's enlisted to write the script. But when Guy's attempt proves limp, a highbrow Yale grad is brought in to bestow a little class on the project. Gerry soon has his cast of mental midgets reading everything from The Jew of Malta to Death of a Salesman. At which point Adult Entertainment becomes a satire, not only of porno films, but also of pretentious "art."

But it's not only the onstage characters who have lofty ambitions. Director Chuck Harper has elevated the delivery of shoot-from-the-hip one-liners into an exercise in ensemble acting. These six performers seem to be breathing as one; they're listening to each other. Best of all, they're telling the same story. Last November I wrote of The Exonerated, "Anyone who's ever doubted the talent pool of the St. Louis acting community should make a special point to attend the show, because...there is not a weak link on the stage." That statement can be repeated -- and underscored -- for this second HotCity production.

Larissa Forsythe's Heidi-the-Ho is a cartoon character whose animator forgot to add clothes. As the tongue-tied Frosty Moons, Carrie Hegdahl has a wonderful time mangling phrases like ménage à trois. And as the sultry Vixen Fox, Julie Venegoni only needs roller skates to complete a thoroughly alluring package. The men are equally terrific. As the Yale grad, Matt Kahler even stands taller than the rest of the cast. Jerry Russo's Guy is charmingly guileless. And Jared Sanz-Agero's Jimbo, who equates emoting with eye patches, scars and neck braces, is a triumph of big-hearted cockiness. (This is the same actor who played that little twerp Mozart in last year's Amadeus? No way.)

The ever-acerbic May has a ball sending up the stupefyingly awful (yet mesmerizingly watchable) weekly skin show on New York City's public-access TV channel. But May's best film scripts (A New Leaf, Primary Colors) always have been soft at the center, as if beneath her sardonic veneer she's really as naive as Bambi. That's true here too. Despite its off-color vocabulary, Adult Entertainment is more endearing than dirty. And though the action onstage is enhanced by hilariously suggestive videos, the script itself is as old-fashioned as Garson Kanin's venerable homage to the love of learning, Born Yesterday.

For decades now May has been writing one-act plays that specialize in the quick jab. Although a full-length comedy proves tougher for her to sustain, and though her final scene undergoes a bewildering change in tone (as if it had been ghostwritten by Neil Simon), for much of the evening the mayhem is refreshingly frenzied. And Adult Entertainment works well in this playing space: A story that thrives on dinginess is ideally suited to a dump like the ArtLoft.

Early in Act Two, the Svengali-like Gerry tells his brain-dead students, "Art always leaves a little room for ambiguity." But there's nothing ambiguous about Adult Entertainment. More often than not it is relentlessly funny. But if the prospect of in-your-face mirth leaves you cold, not to worry. Like Heidi and Guy, you can always stay home and read Faulkner.