Ship of Fools

Icebergs figure prominently in Titanic, Christopher Durang's absurdly wild 1974 deconstruction of family life, but then so do hamsters, marmalade, and tortured slices of Wonder Bread. There's no Leonardo DiCaprio, but there is a captain. He's the one sporting the black dildo on the white tennis headband -- a getup that makes him look rather like an obscene version of a unicorn. Movie fans, beware. You won't be taking in the glories of underwater photography in this version of the shipboard tale. Indeed, you won't be watching anything remotely resembling a polished piece of storytelling. Should you board the Titanic that recently set sail at Florida Playwrights' Theatre in Hollywood, you will, however, be treated to all the tasteless humor that a low-rent production can provide.

Which is no small thing, when the playwright is Durang. The show, presented by X-Ray Spex, the self-described "filthy younger brother of FPT," is of course capitalizing on the popularity of James Cameron's blockbuster movie. It's also cashing in on its own measured success, having recently moved into prime time after a healthy late-night run, the better to allure unsuspecting theatergoers who might actually think that the farce has some relation to the 1912 disaster or any of the historically faithful docudramas about it. But Durang has no intention of revisiting the famous wreck to re-count the lifeboats. His characters -- a family of four, if you can call it that -- begin to sink long before they ever get onboard.

But wait, you ask, where did this play come from? If you've never heard of Durang's Titanic, you're not alone. The seldom-produced work, written while the playwright attended the graduate program at Yale Drama School in the early Seventies, was the second Durang drama (The Nature and Purpose of the Universe was the first) seen in New York City. In 1975 it was presented in a late-night format off-off-Broadway, where it was, in Durang's words, "a sort of cult success," in no small part, perhaps, because the cast included the playwright's buddy Sigourney Weaver. Soon thereafter it died the quick and painful death of an avant-garde work that goes to a commercial Broadway house. Doubtless there have been other productions before the current X-Ray Spex go-round, but Titanic is not the sort of play that endears itself to conventional theatergoers. Or anyone else uncomfortable with the notion that one character confesses to having once stored a hedgehog in her vagina. "My gynecologist runs the other way when he sees me coming," she says.

That would be Lidia (Amanda Danielle Becker), the captain's daughter, who in the course of Titanic sings a song about pudding; seduces Teddy (Jaki Levy), the son of first-class passengers Victoria (Ivonne M. Pelaez) and Richard (Paul Thomas); and transmutes -- at least in the minds of others -- into Annabella, the daughter of Victoria and Richard. That's right, folks: She becomes Teddy's sister. But if you believe Richard, Annabella isn't actually Victoria's daughter. In a fit of pique, he tells Victoria that the girl's mother is her good friend Harriet Lindsay. As for Victoria's giving birth, "It was all a trick," Richard says. "You only thought you gave birth. Harriet and I did it with mirrors." But that's not the end of mysteries as far as Lidia/Annabella is concerned. At times Lidia is also Harriet. At other times she is merely a girl who keeps mammals in unlikely places.

To call Titanic a comedy of mistaken identity would be to sell it short. (In fact, to call it anything other than a shameless vehicle for Durang's then emerging sense of humor would be downright misleading.) Among other things, it's a story that makes light of patricide, incest, and the so-called sanctity of marriage and family. For example, when asked for "bad words beginning with m," one character suggests mother. In another scene, Richard, mistaking Teddy for a deckhand, seduces his own son, only to find that the boy won't return the money he took for the service once his identity is revealed. Additional cheap laughs result by quoting (or misquoting) poets William Butler Yeats, William Blake, and the children's song "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" -- all in the same piece of dialogue.

As for the Wonder Bread, Victoria claims that Richard romanced a loaf, thinking he was siring a son. "You made love to pieces of white bread, you stupid man," she snarls. "And not only that, but I made your toast out of it in the morning. Hah! I trust you'll be more careful next time I say something is just marmalade." Later, several slices show up impaled on the captain's dildo. And if that isn't enough -- well, really, that is enough. Or it would be if Titanic had the emotional power of Durang's later works -- The Marriage of Bette and Boo and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, for example. In Sister Mary, his razor-sharp humor cuts through the pieties of church and family with a well-honed genius. And, as far as I can tell, no hedgehogs.

Before we proceed to the four-legged creatures and their fates, however, here's some of the back story of the writing of Titanic, which is even more compelling than the play itself. As the dramatist explains in the introduction of his collection Christopher Durang Explains It All for You, the story came about "from an exercise [Yale dean of play writing] Howard Stein asked us to do: Write a scene on a train with a man smoking a cigar, and a woman asking him to stop." Durang turned the train into a boat, "and not much was said about cigars, though a lot was said of white bread, mirrors, and marmalade."

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