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."

Indeed.
"I continued writing Titanic in Jules Feiffer's class," he goes on, "and cut out a section where the Titanic docked at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. Feiffer, who liked the play, said it was a prepubescent temper tantrum of children learning about their parents' 'doing it,' but I think the play is probably too messy to be thematically enclosed. It clearly has to do with children's anger at their parents -- they kill them, after all -- with parents manipulating and seducing their children, and with a certain fear and disgust with sex.... In any case, even though the play is sort of a mess, I think it's a funny and evocative mess, and I'm happy to have it in print."

Okay, but should we be happy to have it on-stage? Few antics endear a small theater company more to this critic than its reaching beyond the usual suspects in choosing plays to produce. I'd much rather see an obscure Durang from time to time than yet another production of Sam Shepard's Buried Child or David Mamet's American Buffalo, which have become chestnuts of the small-theater circuit. That said, the show at the FPT is uneven at best, although highly entertaining, at least for the first 40 of its roughly 75 minutes. Once the ship hits the iceberg (or something to that effect -- I won't give it away here), the comedy begins to sink. That's partly Durang's fault. By this point, he's emptied his bag of outrageous tricks, and his resolutions of dramatic shenanigans are mere formalities.

At the FPT, however, only Ivonne M. Pelaez as Victoria is consistently up to the demands of sophisticated tastelessness. Dressed in a lace evening gown that evokes some of Joan Crawford's early sartorial choices, Pelaez brings an appealing vulnerability to Victoria's craziness. She's drunk on her own delusions. The rest of the cast has moments -- some of them intentional -- in which they hit their marks. Jaki Levy seems as dazed as his character Teddy. Amanda Danielle Becker as Lidia comes across rather too intensely in the small FPT black box. With all those mammals in her nether regions, she could underplay the role to great effect. Her other characters suffer in that they're merely variations on Lidia. Andre Todd Bruni is understated as Higgins, the sailor, which is fine. John J. O'Connor's captain speaks with a Boston-Irish accent, an interesting effect if not exactly a conscious acting choice. And as the clueless Richard, Paul Thomas looks the part, even when his timing is off.

Director Bryan Sears's staging has all the charm of a hastily put-together back-yard production, if back-yard productions had strobe lights and sound systems. Sears and Paul Thomas manage to squeeze three discrete sets, all composed of tacky furniture, into the FPT's tiny performance space. And last but not least, with its spirited and, uh, loud imitation of a luxury liner hitting an iceberg, X-Ray Spex lives up to the cool and unusual aspect of its name, even if Durang's Titanic is not quite shipshape.

Titanic.
Written by Christopher Durang; directed by Bryan Sears; with Ivonne M. Pelaez, Paul Thomas, Jaki Levy, Amanda Danielle Becker, John J. O'Connor, and Andre Todd Bruni. Through May 10. Florida Playwrights' Theater, 1936 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood; 954-925-8123.

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