By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Give us a T! Give us an A! A little of both are on display in Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical, now shaking its pompons and some booty at Kitchen Dog Theater. Based on the infamous smut film from the late '70s, but only very loosely, this is porn to be mild, a softcore musical comedy no dirtier than a John Waters movie and with no more nekkidness (dang it!) than an episode of Benny Hill.
With a wink and a smile, Debbie does a pretty funny number on the corrupting effects of boundless ambition. Like most musicals, this one focuses on a little gal with a great big dream. The gal is Debbie Benton, a ruthless small-town cheer-tator whose idea of the perfect career is wiggling professionally on the sidelines with the "Dallas Cowgirls."
"I wanna be someone, I wanna be great, in that blue and white outfit in the Lone Star State," sings Debbie (played with wide-eyed faux naïveté by the wacky and wonderful Cara Statham Serber). That's from "One Step Closer to My Dream," the funniest song in the show's thin score.
But problems arise, as they must, as our heroine prepares for her journey to the big-time. Can Debbie really afford the expensive trip to Big D? Why, oh, yes, she can, once she enlists her cheer-friends to help earn some hard cash. Bake sale? Car wash? Hmmm. What else can they do to get that kitty filled?
"We're all good girls," Debbie and her pals Lisa (Allison Tolman), Donna (Mikal Evans), Roberta (Mollie Millegan) and Tammy (Leah Spillman) tell the horndog local businessmen who hire them at minimum wage. But it's what they're good at that counts. First Debbie and then the others start to augment their meager salaries by selling themselves as "Teen Services."
Spouting the so-dumb-it's-hilarious dialogue from the movie, Debbie and her squad of rah-rah-stitutes bounce and squeak like come-to-life blow-up dolls. They don't really do Dallas or anything sexual at all in this sanitized take on the stag film. The dirty stuff is merely alluded to in suggestive choreography. Peek-a-boo pinch and tickle all the way.
The sex jokes are endless and as subtle as a megaphone upside the head. "Mr. Hardwick" (Lee Trull) from the candle store leads a song-and-dance with wax phalluses, crooning "Get that candle workin'/Just stick it through your merkin." When one of the girls teaches the others proper technique for oral pleasure, she's interrupted by a chorus of dancing bananas.
Kitchen Dog director Tina Parker has coached a team of strong comic actors and able singers for this Debbie's debut. Besides Serber, Tolman and Trull, who all give it more than a college try, Jeffrey Schmidt makes the sexually frustrated football captain a charming, swaggering buffoon, and Joey Oglesby is good as "Mr. Greenfelt," owner of the sporting goods emporium and quite a sport when it comes to luring Debbie into compromising positions. Leah Spillman, as the wing-haired cheerleader with serious political aspirations, captures the uptightness of the determined student council type.
But Parker and her cast somehow come up just short of an A-plus for the evening. It's not X-rated, but this Debbie lacks the special X-factor. At only 80 minutes, it hangs in limbo between overlong comedy sketch and skimpy full-length musical. And in this production, there are technical glitches everywhere. Actors aren't miked, so the canned music drowns out their lyrics. Awkward set changes create strange pauses between scenes. The lighting is dim, and the follow spot misses its targets. Set pieces look flimsy and cheap. The performers hump like mad to bring the show to a climax, but it's like the techies went limp before they finished the job.
Henry and Yocum play Roberta and Danny, lifelong losers who hook up after knowing each other for one round of beer and pretzels at a dreary Bronx bar. She's 31 and he's 29. They both live with their parents. She also has a teenage son. The play follows them through one profound night as they get to know each other. Desperate to connect but afraid of letting their guard down, they somehow conjure true love out of thin air, but only after they've had sex and a couple of noisy fights in Roberta's attic room.
Shanley's a master at throwing earthy types together to make sparks. He earned an Oscar for writing the movie Moonstruck, which matched a prickly older woman (Cher) with a thick-headed, one-handed baker (Nicolas Cage). Those characters believed they lived under a curse. They tried not to fall in love but couldn't help themselves.
Roberta and Danny are like that, too. He has a violent streak and confesses that he might have killed a guy in a bar fight. Sporting a black eye and badly bruised knuckles, he tells Roberta what he believes to be the source of his pain: "Everybody makes me mad." She has a terrible secret, too. Revealing it, she thinks, would keep anyone from really loving her.
Forgiveness is in order and how they get to it is the soul of this deeply moving and surprisingly funny little play, which Shanley wrote in the early 1980s (his latest, Doubt, earned him the Pulitzer and is still running on Broadway). There are scenes in Danny and the Deep Blue Sea that hearken back to Paddy Chayefsky's Marty, and you may be reminded of Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, although Danny came before that one.
With Danny and Roberta, they may be crazy as bedbugs and more than a little dull-witted, but you want them to work it out. She aches for romance and a teensy slice of happiness. Even in her shabby attic, she's assigned a neighbor's security light the role of perpetually full moon. Danny, poor fellow, is like that pound dog that snarls because previous owners kicked him around. He doesn't trust tenderness because he's never been on the receiving end of it. You can see where this is going.
Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is a lovely piece of work made all the lovelier by the actors in it and the precise direction by Susan Sargeant. Heather Henry and Clay Yocum (making his debut with WingSpan) inhabit their characters with such raw honesty that watching them feels like an invasion of their privacy. Opening night found them rushing early moments of the bar scene. They could afford to slow down and allow the occasional pause as Danny and Roberta sip their beers and size each other up. The audience is with them from moment one. But that's a minor nitpick. Later on, in the bedroom scene, they relax and pace the ebbs and flows just about perfectly. The climax of the play is a grabber that had some of us reaching for hankies.
Really great acting is reason enough to go to the theater. And a good play that runs only 65 minutes makes you leave wanting more. You'll certainly want to see more of Yocum, who looks a bit like TV actor Michael Chikliss, all brawn and baldheaded. Henry is an unconventional beauty, playing against her dark prettiness the way the young Shelley Winters used to. They are intense and intensely talented, these two, and very, very sexy.