By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Short of dropping your pants, there's no better way of exposing yourself than by writing a work of fiction. A novel or a play is just an author's way of lifting the lid on the bait box of his or her brain to reveal the writhing, wriggling worms within.
Open Stage's Fat Men in Skirts is a case in point. It exposes quite an array of influences and impressions roiling playwright Nicky Silver's cerebrum, including Sigmund Freud, the Oedipus legend, Lord of the Flies, The Savage Is Loose (a lame George C. Scott flick), Lina Wertmueller's Swept Away, Imelda Marcos, Psycho, Sweeny Todd, Eating Raoul, Gilligan's Island, Silence of the Lambs, and E.T.
Though it's got more weird stuff swimming in it than a bouillabaisse, there's still something missing in Silver's comedy. It proves that spilling your subconscious on paper is not enough to create a coherent, compelling work of drama. You also have to have something to say.
The story concerns Phyllis, an embittered Hollywood wife, who's married to Howard, a director who makes family films about a lovable alien named Arkie. Howard's none too keen about his own family, however. He generally ignores his son, Bishop, preferring the company of porno-actress types like Pam, with whom he jets to Italy for a shoot.
Phyllis and Bishop fly off separately to join Howard, but their plane crashes on a desert island. The pickings are slim, so they end up eating what remains of the passengers, including, in one sicko scene, a baby from whom they pick entrails that look like red licorice whips.
Five years later, they're rescued and reunited with Howard. The family enjoys a rather unusual reunion feast featuring human biltong as the main course, after which conversation becomes superfluous.
The best part of the play is the conviction the actors bring to it. Kristina Baker plays Phyllis as a bitter bitch who gains a maternal instinct while losing her mind. The unremitting sun and sand on the island disintegrate her designer shoes and her psyche, so that by play's end she's a gibbering lunatic. Baker is good as both a woman wrapped in a callow veneer, literally screened from her child by sunglasses and a scarf, to a barely clad lunatic who is one big exposed nerve.
T.A. Taylor also is on the money as Howard, a man with a perpetual Hollywood tan who can resist anything but temptation. A combination of aggression and befuddlement, Howard is that commonplace entity in the business world--a person of dim intelligence but unlimited confidence who succeeds by getting other people to take him at his own estimation of himself. Taylor reflects this trait in his eyes, which show a struggle to comprehend complex moral issues that is quickly abandoned when confronted by a bare midriff.
That bare midriff is supplied by Jennifer Ronald, who can match bellies with the best of them. As porno actress Pam, she gets to display some eye-popping outfits, as well a tart sense of comedic delivery.
Best of all, though, is Dalton James as Bishop. He begins the play as an 11-year-old stuttering idiot-savant nerd who knows more about Katharine Hepburn than his mom or the audience members care to learn. He ends it as a nutzoid cannibal motherfucker in the most literal sense.
It's an impressive transformation, to which James commits completely. You pretty much have to lay it all on the line when the script calls for you to appear beloinclothed a la Tarzan while delivering a naturalistic paean to the joy and empowerment of monkeylike masturbation. James' portrait of a monster is all the more frightening for the fact that he's an intelligent monster. Like Frankenstein in Mary Shelly's book, he knows how to mentally torment people and how to physically rip them to pieces. It's one of the more compelling performances that's been given on a Dallas stage this year, and it sticks with you.
Yet the play hides its lack of a theme behind the shock value of simulated cannibalism and incest. The central metaphor of the piece, a 300-pound transvestite in a skirt, is obscure, the Oedipal overtones unilluminating, and the conclusion explaining Bishop's behavior unsatisfying.
Fat Men In Skirts is gruesome, but it's not really a gross-out farce. It's funny in spots, but not as witty as an average Seinfeld episode or even as socially satirical as The Simpsons. Nor can it be taken as a serious message about the havoc our neglected youth wreak on society.
Instead, it's more like spelunking through a bachelor friend's refrigerator. There's some interesting stuff, some funny stuff, and some disgusting stuff, but the whole is not equal to the sum of the parts.
Fat Men In Skirts runs through May 12 at the Margo Jones Theater in Fair Park. Call (214) 247-7010.