Do the Hustle

If British playwright Rod Dungate's 1992 Playing by the Rules has an intelligible point of view, a consistent focus, or even a story worth telling, it's impossible to discern from its current production at Edge/Theatre on Miami Beach. Adapted for the American stage (reconstituted into a South Beach version) and directed by Peter Zaragoza, this play about teenage male hustlers -- originally set in Birmingham, England -- offers a rambling hodgepodge of gossipy vignettes, posturing actors who play characters throwing hissy fits, and a morass of South Florida references.

This tale of lust, love, and betrayal -- complete with a gang of friends who share clothes, steal each other's boyfriends, experiment with drugs and sex, and rescue each other if they get in trouble -- unravels in melodramatic episodes that rival the best of television's prime-time teen soaps. Rather than illuminating the experience of male prostitutes' lives, this account of Playing by the Rules weighs in as a declasse spinoff of Beverly Hills 90210. Subtitled Six Days in the Lives of Miami Hustlers, the play incoherently chronicles the misadventures of a merry band of profligate youths who open the show by defiantly revealing, as a chorus and in rhyme, that they are going to tell their story and they'll "say it our way."

Two acts and a reeling 23 scenes later, that story emerges as this: Fifteen-year-old Danny (played by Emilio J. Santana, who bounces and pouts his way through the role) takes to the streets after running away from the generically named Boy's Home. While unsuccessfully hustling men at bus stops with a plaintive story of having lost his fare, he's spotted by Steve (Ozzie Carnan), a seasoned prostitute who takes Danny under his wing and trains the kid on how to score. He sets Danny up in a room at Sean's (Robert Seplin), a young queen who staves off boredom by shoplifting, and whose apartment, paid for by Sean's older lover (described by Sean as being repulsive but loaded), serves as the gang's unofficial crash pad. The group also includes Steve's girlfriend Julie (Andria Angora), perennially drunk, pregnant with Steve's child, and pissed off at her man, who ignores her in favor of the new pretty boy on the block; Tony (Christian Gutz), a Cuban hunk who loves freebasing and who pledges himself to a slimy but rich gangster pimp; and Ape (Gene Gabriel), Tony's well-meaning but dimwitted brother.

Under Zaragoza's frantic and splintered direction, they bop from street to apartment to club to hotel room to car to bedroom and back to the street. Some of the performances aren't half-bad: Carnan commands the stage at times with a natural presence; Angora spews invectives with credible rage; and Gabriel admirably shifts personas as he slips into several different roles. But overall the troupe relies on a limited repertoire of gestures and emotions to convey their characters. Like a group of friends who get together and improvise being each other, at first they seem clever A until it all grows tedious.

The production does have its strengths. For one thing, it's funny. For another, the characters drink, drug, and prostitute themselves with a refreshing lack of remorse. And the feisty cast sports plenty of don't-cry-for-me attitude, making up for less-than-discriminating portrayals with energetic camaraderie, which explodes into several fresh moments. At the end of act one, for example, the brat packers line up and shake their butts to the widely popular Spanish dance tune "Macarena"; the scene boasts an exhilarating and spontaneous feel. In another episode, Danny's first night on the street soliciting customers (each one played by Gabriel) unfolds under a strobe light; the fractured movements and distorted time frame created by the strobe impart an eerie sense of chaos, danger, and excitement.

Alas, campy glibness, spunky energy, and one or two standout scenes do not carry a production. They certainly don't justify the claims of Edge/Theatre press releases, which tout Playing by the Rules as an important play. I have yet to figure out exactly what makes it so important. It breaks no theatrical ground, either in its subject matter or its structure. It offers no insights into hustling, life on the streets, adolescence, or even friendship. Yes, it features male nudity, including two naked guys simulating making love -- but nudity hasn't caused a major stir in the theater since 1967's Hair and 1969's Oh, Calcutta! In fact last year's Tony Award for best play went to Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! in which six -- count 'em, six -- men shed their clothes. On Broadway, no less.

In truth, the term "familiar" describes this work better than "important" does, because Zaragoza has relentlessly localized its references. Gay or straight, South Florida audiences can ostensibly identify with the play because they recognize the series of place names that litter the script; they may even have lived in or patronized Morton Towers, Century Village, Warsaw, the Delano, Lucky Cheng's, or the Omni mall. Ultimately, however, this SoBe take on Playing by the Rules proves shallow, proffering easy recognition while giving short shrift to characterization and authentic experience. It renders the play fleetingly amusing but lacking in subtlety or depth.

Playing by the Rules.
Written by Rod Dungate; adapted and directed by Peter Zaragoza; with Andria Angora, Ozzie Carnan, Gene Gabriel, Christian Gutz, Emilio J. Santana, and Robert Seplin. Through March 3. For more information, call 531-6083 or see "Calendar" listings.


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