To get down with Uptown Players and Upstart Productions, you'd better be up on your movies. Both theater companies have shows right now paying homage to specific film genres. Uptown takes on the serial killer thriller with one of playwright Jamie Morris' campy spoofs, The Silence of the Clams. It's so deliciously dirty a revision of the 1991 Silence of the Lambs, it might make even Buffalo Bill blanch at its filthy jokes. Know the difference between a "gunt" and a "fupa"? You will after this play. And there'll be no way short of electroshock to wipe the images from your merkin, er, mind.
Upstart, meanwhile, goes further back in film history for its regional debut of The Better Doctor, a "silent film onstage" written by former Dallas playwright Matt Lyle, whose first silent comedy, The Boxer, was a huge success here several years ago. Lyle now lives and writes in Chicago, where Doctor premiered in 2010. If the newer play isn't the TKO The Boxer was, it might be because Lyle wasn't here to oversee its staging.
But first, the tasteless treat that is Clams, performed by Uptown Players in the Rose Room, the dim and appropriately clammy theater space above the S4 gay bar on Cedar Springs. (Uptown shares Kalita Humphreys Theater with Dallas Theater Center, which is using it at present for Next Fall.)
The Silence of the Clams continues through May 20 (no show May 19) at the Rose Room (above the S4 bar, Cedar Springs Road at Throckmorton Street). Call 214-219-7218. (No one under 21 admitted.) The Better Doctor continues through May 20 at The Nest, 425 Bedford St. Go to upstarttheater.com for tickets. (All Thursday performances are pay-what-you-can.)
Uptown has done two other Morris comedies at the Rose Room: Mommie Queerest and The Facts of Life: The Lost Episode. Like those, The Silence of the Clams is crass and crude, funny but flawed. Morris, a Las Vegas writer, always leans too heavily on his source material at the expense of originality. For Clams, he includes word-for-word speeches Jodie Foster's butch heroine Clarice Starling delivers onscreen in Lambs. It's amusing the first time, less so the fourth. Better he should work harder thinking up fresh, snappy dialogue for his main character, jumpy "Clarice Startling."
Good thing Uptown director Linda Leonard lets her all-male acting trio — Austin Tindle, J. Mathew Butler and Mikey Abrams — cut loose when they need to goose things up. Tindle is an inspired choice to play Clarice. As a young man with killer gams and a clear complexion, he's gorgeous as a girl. Glam makeup and wigs by Coy Covington add gloss to the illusion.
Tindle hasn't just glanced sideways at Lambs to create his Clarice. He's honed a Foster-as-FBI-trainee impersonation that's so spot on, he even adds the rushed, breathy Appalachian drawl to her lines in the prison cell convos with the evil "Hanibal Lichter" (pronounced Licked-her, of course).
Doubling as the Anthony Hopkins character and as serial killer "Beaver Bob" aka Jame Gumb, Butler is another note-for-note mimic. His kimono dance as the cross-dressing maniac is a highlight of this lowbrow satire. If you saw Lambs, you'll remember the creepy reveal of Buffalo Bill's tucked-in nether regions. In Uptown's version, Bob's "stuff" is covered with a furry vadge toupee. Your eyes will say "ewww" long before your lips do.
Knowing Lambs word for word (and who doesn't?) helps anticipate the best bits of Clams. Instead of a human liver, fava beans and a nice kee-anty, this Hanibal dines on a victim's "prostate with Swiss chard and an unassuming pinot noir." Butler captures Hopkins' flat, nasal drone when he mocks Clarice's pedestrian wardrobe: "Your expensive bag and cheap shoes. Did you BOGO? Does it feel good to pay less?"
Playwright Morris follows the film's structure far too rigidly, which starts to feel forced long before Beaver Bob chases Clarice around the basement in night-vision goggles. Morris also misses a great opportunity for maximum camp by not exploiting the "it puts the lotion in the basket" sequence (the pit is cleverly rendered on the small stage by scenic designer Dennis Canright).
The 90-minute parody includes one intermish and the Rose Room has bar service. Cocktails do go nicely with shellfish. And thanks to strong performances by Tindle, Butler and Abrams, Silence of the Clams flexes plenty of comedy mussels.
If the Oscar winner The Artist succeeded as a tribute to the silent film comedies of Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd, then Upstart Productions' The Better Doctor could appeal to the theater crowd as a tribute to the tribute. Matt Lyle's 75-minute play is a slapstick indictment of the modern healthcare system, acted out wordlessly in classic silent film style with "title cards," chase scenes and sight gags.
Three sick, adorable urchins (Nadaya McCullough, Manon McCollum, Lily McCollum) and their friend Velma (Lindsay Bartlett) try to convince a snooty doctor (Robert Long) and his fumbling intern (Ezra Jesse Bookman) to give the kids free medicine. When the hospital kicks them all out, Velma, the intern and the tykes try to scam their way back in. It's Little Rascals meets House.
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Before upping stick for Chi-town, Lyle staged his own productions of his funny-sweet plays The Boxer and Hello Human Female at the Bath House and the Ochre House. Too bad he wasn't around for The Better Doctor, which at Upstart is as flat and wooden as a tongue depressor. What should be slapstick is slapdash. Where it needs poignancy, it goes pfffft. Co-directed by Cassie Bann and Justin Locklear, the show suffers from unfocused action and anemic performances from most of the cast. Only Ben Schroth as the madcap pharmacist gets it right, maybe because he's worked in Pegasus Theatre's black-and-white plays, which also pay tribute to old movies.
More care has been given to non-acting aspects of Better Doctor, which unfolds on a wide stretch of floor inside the converted West Dallas warehouse where Upstart now resides. Gorgeous backdrops by Isaac, Jerod and Josh Davies look like giant black-and-white pencil sketches of old buildings. Costumes reflecting generic if not accurate 1920s styles are designed by Jennifer Madison in soft blacks and grays. Filmed sequences by Marc Rouse have that faded, grainy texture of vintage celluloid. A live band adds a bouncy score and goofy pennywhistle effects.
Besides Lyle's deft touch as director, two other key elements are missing from The Better Doctor, however: Jeff Swearingen and Ben Bryant. These Dallas actors starred in Lyle's earlier pieces and their absence is felt in the new one. Both top-notch pratfall artists, they have comedy rhythms in their bones.
It takes talent to speak a playwright's lines well enough to earn laughs from an audience. Getting those laughs without saying anything requires a different set of skills. The meaning in the arch of an eyebrow and the curl of a lip is easier to see on a big screen than in live theater, but Upstart's actors get the big and small moves so wrong they're committing comedy malpractice with The Better Doctor. The way they're doing this play, the silence is louder on the wrong side of the footlights.