BACK STAGE WEST
February 20, 2003
at Theatre of NOTE
Erik Patterson's strange new play is one that takes you by surprise and ravishes you. Polymorphously perverse and evenhandedly sympathetic, on one level it's a domestic-abuse recovery drama refracted through a creepy, fragmented, peep-show sensibility; on another level it's a masterful demonstration of the way sexual confusion can function as a visceral theatrical metaphor for the mutability and unreliability of identity. Not that Patterson presents us abstractions--he's much too empathetically engaged in the messy particulars of his characters' lives to embalm them in interpretation or burnish them with spurious virtues. But he's clearly a playwright with more on his mind than the naturalistic details and fraught comedy of dysfunctional relationships, both of which he nails beautifully when he gets around to it; it's the getting-around-to-it part that shows Patterson's formal and philosophical ambitions.
It's also probably the part that will lose, or confound, some audiences: The play opens, in avenue staging, with a woman (Alina Phelan) singing Bjork's "It's Oh So Quiet" centerstage; to one side, a statuesque pole dancer (Jennifer Ann Evans) struts her stuff, and to the other a man (Christopher Neiman), naked below the waist, is either finishing a particularly painful bowel movement or straining for self-induced orgasm (I couldn't quite tell from where I sat). The distinction may be moot for Elliott, the sexual-compulsive nebbish who first emerges as a protagonist; he's the kind of sad little need-hole who thinks he may be in love with a male hustler (a Dionysian Richard Werner) and who tries to give direction to a female phone-sex operator (spunky, querulous McKerrin Kelly), when he's not putting her on hold to take worried calls from his mother. To either side, under ominous direct light, a white-coated doctor (Scott McKinley) pops up occasionally to pontificate about deviant sexuality, with moral disgust and clinical condescension redolent of another era. It's not long before we're treated to stunningly accurate demonstrations of pole- and lap-dancing, matter-of-fact sex-worker shop talk, and a few more renditions of Bjork tunes--it seems that Elliott's little sister (Phelan) is an infantilized teen who literally believes she is the Icelandic pop princess. What the hell is going on?
The answers unfold beguilingly, as unlikely connections form like synapses and fire the play's world. Miguel Montalvo's direction is raw and weirdly tender throughout, even amid the jolts of the first act. A second-act scene in which Phelan and Rachel Kann, as a hoarse Goth teen, bond over their Discmans is almost shockingly moving and funny. In the play's main roles, Neiman and Evans are like an R. Crumb couple come to life: the sweaty homunculus pervert and the towering, leggy Amazon. Both are extraordinary, particularly the pale Evans, who displays an invigorating, almost daunting self-possession in her platform heels, thong, and pasties; it's partly a matter of Evans capturing the stripper's professional pride, in comic contrast with the awkward beginner Brooke (Kelly), but also something else, something vital and unembarrassed and relentless despite the damage, that taps the telltale heart of Patterson's play.
Even the one connection we may feel is missing--between the fragmentation and indirection of the first act, and the seemingly more conventional dramatic shape of the second act--is ultimately made. Like everything else about Yellow Flesh/Alabaster Rose, it has both the shock of recognition and the unexpected warmth of benediction. The freaks are all right.
"Yellow Flesh/Alabaster Rose," presented by and at Theatre of Note, 1517 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m. Feb. 14-Mar. 29. $15. (323) 856-8611.