Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Twentieth-Century Way **

Theater can be so educational. Today I learned that fellatio became popular in the early twentieth century because of recent improvements in hygiene and the invention of the zipper. I also learned that the play’s title was a euphemism for that sex act. Tom Jacobson’s two-hander (pun not intended), now at Rattlestick Theater in a co-production with L.A.’s Theatre @ Boston Court, is based on a true story. In 1914 the Long Beach, California police hired two actors named Warren and Brown to entrap homosexuals in both public and private places and arrest them for “social vagrancy.” Apparently the California sodomy law did not specifically cover oral sex, which one of the characters refers to as “sodomy as a snack.” To get the evidence, the entrapping officer marked an X on the exposed member with indelible ink. I’m not making this up. Their campaign was so successful that they were hired by other California cities and their efforts were at least partly responsible for the state passing a law explicitly banning fellatio and cunnilingus the following year. Certainly this material could lead to an interesting play. Unfortunately the playwright chose to embellish it with a framework in which two present-day actors are waiting for an audition for the role of a con man in a movie. Brown (Will Bradley), the slighter and more sensitive of the two, is an actor who builds a role from within. Warren (Robert Mammana), bigger and butcher, follows the technique of building a role from the outside in. To pass the time, they improvise scenes about the people involved in the 1914 story, including the two actor-policemen, the chief of police, a newspaper editor, a reporter, an attorney, a florist, a respected churchgoer. Warren seems oblivious to the harm they are doing to people, while Brown is uncomfortable betraying men he has befriended. There are philosophical arguments about the difference between actor and role and a moment when the fourth wall is broken. And, of course, there is the obligatory nude scene before the end. I credit the actors for giving it their all. The near bare set is by Clifton Chadick. Garry Lennon’s period costumes are evocative. Michael Michetti directed. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

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