By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Twin beds or no, Rob and Laura Petrie danced a lot of bedroom bossa nova out there in New Rochelle. In those tight capri pants and pointy little slippers, darling Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) embodied the Hefneresque vision of the suburban '60s sex kitten. The Dick Van Dyke Showsomehow eluded the censors by slyly alluding to Laura's smoldering sexuality. Remember the nude portrait episode? Or the time Laura admitted to Rob she was really underage when they married? No wonder he kept stumbling over that ottoman. Rob Petrie was so blinded by passion for his cute young wife, he was literally tripping over the furniture to get her into one of those single beds.
Hard to think of many other sitcom couples of that era who generated so much sexual sizzle. Certainly not the ice-cold Stones on The Donna Reed Show (didn't we always suspect she was dipping into her doctor-husband's stash of Miltown?). Not Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, married in real life but oddly short of chemistry on the small screen. And who can imagine rigid Ward Cleaver ripping off June's pearls in a moment of frenzy? In that marriage there really was something the matter with the Beaver, and we're not talking Jerry Mathers.
The only sitcom wife in the 1960s as sexy as Laura Petrie was Carol Post, the bouncy little blonde played by Connie Hines on Mr. Ed. But her twitchy husband, Wilbur (Alan Young), clearly was more besotted by his talking horse. A strange homoeroticism simmered between Wilbur and Ed, the way Ed made Wilbur keep their relationship a secret and how he constantly manipulated Wilbur into spending less time with Carol and more time with him out in the stable. Ed seems long overdue being granted gay icon status. Think about it: The only swishier nag in Hollywood back then was Tony Randall in Pillow Talk.
All this by way of easing into the review of Down South, the R-rated comedy now in production by the gay-centric Uptown Players at the Trinity River Arts Center. Like a Playtex Cross-Your-Heart bra, Doug Field's play stretches itself in two directions at once. It wants to be both homage to and spoof of classic '60s shows and TV couples such as the Petries, Stones and Cleavers. Problem is, what works on the tube doesn't translate so well to the stage. Besides, the TV landscape already is littered with better, smarter satires of itself. The Simpsons, Married...with Children, Absolutely Fabulous, Roseanne, The Osbournes, even The Flintstones take better swipes at the hackneyed rhythms of the sitcom format.
Field, a Los Angeles lawyer turned playwright (C-Cup, Jeannie Fitzpatrick Is Angry), also gets bogged down trying for serious social commentary about the Cuban missile crisis and gender roles in the Camelot years. Those themes quickly get plowed under by the playwright's more obvious obsessions: TV and masturbation.
Down South--now you get the title--opens in the blue glow of the October 22, 1962, newscast on which President Kennedy warns the nation about Fidel Castro. Pretty, apron-wearing Jennifer Barnes (Cara Statham Serber) and her Darrin-esque husband, Bob (David Plunkett), huddle on the sectional sofa in their pastel-splashed, Erie, Pennsylvania, tract home. "Looks like we're on the receiving end of some tropical heat," Jennifer says. "Watch the sky!"
Gliding across the room to a medley of sitcom theme songs (many of which are incongruously from shows that premiered in the late '60s), Jennifer prepares for World War III by cheerfully practicing her Spanish and stacking cans of Dinty Moore in the pantry. Bob is oblivious to impending oblivion. He bounces to the breakfast table in a suit and tie, rings a little brass bell and announces, "Mr. Barnes is ready for his breakfast!" The first clue that all this won't be as wholesome as the Carol Burnett Show sketches it so resembles comes when Bob and Jennifer animate a box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix and a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth's syrup, the former threatening to "whup" the latter's "lily-white ass."
Then the sexual repartee revs up. The more Jennifer worries about thermonuclear war, the more she realizes her life is lacking in one critical area. Bob, she says, is a "vigorous yet limited lover." She has one dream: Before Castro's missiles come down, she'd like Bob to go down. But traveling below the Mason-Dixon Line isn't on Bob's bedroom itinerary. "It's not you I hate, it's the perversion," he tells his wife. Bob is happy to work out at the Y, but he's not gonna dine there.
Enter two more sitcom stereotypes, wacky neighbors Cheryl and Eddie Undulato (Marisa Diotalevi, Nye Cooper). Cheryl, a gum-snapper with a whine like Gladys Kravitz, turns out to be an expert in the art of self-pleasure, and she's more than willing to teach Jennifer how to do a little laundry by hand. While the guys get loaded in the living room, the gals head for the wet bar in the basement.
By Act 2, the Barneses, Undulatos and two more sexually repressed suburbanites, Sue and Stephen Stevens (Diane Worman, Paul J. Williams), are frugging themselves into a full-out living room orgy. Sue is a manly lass from the Sally Rogers school. Stephen sports a red silk cravat and minces like Paul Lynde. In the awkwardly staged party scene, Stephen does the cha-cha with Bob as Cheryl and Jennifer disappear to the boudoir to moisten their manicures.
All of this tawdry nonsense is choreographed by Uptown director Andi Allen to mimic precisely the moves of those old TV characters. Bob cocks his head at his wife whenever he finishes a sentence. Jennifer never stops grinning vacantly, even as she declares, "I cooked, I cleaned, I climaxed." Many, many, many times, dialogue ends, there's a pause and all the characters shrug into one of those breathy Carol Brady sighs.
Yes, this sort of stuff, filtered through the orally fixated gay male perspective, can be amusing. You find yourself laughing mindlessly the way you laugh at the idiotic reruns of the second-rate shows it mocks. But too often the jokes in Down South go south. Field counts on the surefire gimmick of our shared TV history to disguise his lack of plot, and while all the dirty talk may be shockingly funny the first time it comes popping out of the mouths of these saccharine so-and-so's, it's not the 10th or 20th time. Both acts end with superfluous, badly written punch-line scenes. Even good performances by the Uptown cast, notably Serber's as the twinkly Jennifer and Williams' as the effeminate Stephen Stevens, can't rescue a script that sinks faster than the S.S. Minnow.
Technically the production has an even longer punch list of errant details. No director should allow an actor to chew gum onstage. In this play Marisa Diotalevi gnashes a jawful while she speaks, eats, drinks and smokes. From the audience perspective, it's hideous to watch the white goo slip around Diotalevi's wide-open gob. She could double the pleasure of her performance by eschewing the wad.
Philip Lowman's wigs for the women are disasters. Serber's wig, a brunette Jackie Kennedy flip, sits askew on her head and looks like it was run over by My Mother the Car. Worman's Sue Stevens hairpiece, a disheveled platinum Dolly Parton horror, is almost larger than the actress under it. Diotalevi's red cascade resembles wet orangutan fur.
Costume designers Suzi Shankle and Bill Bullard knew the basic period looks they were going for--Ethel Mertz's rickrack-trimmed hausfrau dresses and Donna Reed's wasp-waists--but they blew it on the wrong footwear with every single outfit. No right-thinking '60s TV housewife would ever have worn grass-green satin pumps with a butter-yellow chiffon cocktail dress.
Mr. Ed had better shoes.
Pico de Gallo, the spicy sketch comedy show at Oak Cliff's Ice House Cultural Center, has turned into a hot ticket. With sold-out houses packing the small performance space, the Martice Enterprises troupe is adding four more performances. The show is up through August 30, will be dark the week of August 31, then returns September 12, 13, 19 and 20. Call 214-243-2348.