Soaring from the sewer

Ticket buyers who decide to attend the Undermain Theatre's world premiere of John O'Keefe's new play, The Deatherians, will see a sign at the door of the theater that states the following: "This play contains adult situations and extremely graphic language. For mature audiences only."

That warning is the understatement of the fall '96 Dallas theater season. The Deatherians contains more profanity per square inch than any stage production I've ever seen, and although its brief nudity is tastefully restrained (perhaps the only thing tasteful about this show), there's also a fair share of gore, sex toys, and simulated (though obscured) onstage intercourse. Three weeks ago, if you told me I'd see a Dallas production in a which a man licks semen off a plate-glass surface, I'd have responded that I never attend those ribald sex shows reputed to take place at certain private Dallas clubs.

But the Undermain Theatre isn't a private club, and the semen on the glass isn't real, of course. Still, to be confronted by such graphically sexual bluntness in the course of a relatively mundane theater critic's duty is to realize that the company in question is taking extreme chances with explicit material in a conservative town. The question is, does The Deatherians succeed at making a larger point with its freewheeling sexual imagery? In other words, does it offer enough substance to justify its titillating style, or is the whole exercise intended to rattle the easily rattled chains of America's sexual mores?

The answer to both questions is a qualified yes. Playwright John O'Keefe does offer audiences a thoughtful, if sometimes muddled critique of a Western culture whose institutions, popular and otherwise, have increasingly devalued life--and sex, the means by which it is created and enhanced. In the same breath, I must admit that The Deatherians gets its white-hot energy from a certain adolescent desire to shock for the sake of shock alone. Still, the Undermain passes that oft-cited Supreme Court test of pornography--"Does the work contain artistic value that transcends prurient interest?"--with a stunning series of comic performances that are among the best you'll see this year.

Playwright John O'Keefe and director Raphael Parry, who is also co-artistic director of the Undermain, deserve a hearty ovation for the show's innate understanding of how sex and death are densely tangled in the American psyche. AIDS, which curiously never surfaces as a topic in O'Keefe's collision between personal agendas and medical ethics, didn't tie this knot, it just tightened it. The characters in The Deatherians, like a large part of "civilized, educated" America, pretend to be nonchalant about these two inevitable facts of life, although they indulge in both with an obsessive compulsion that suggests a hopeless desire to master twin forces of nature. To be sure, most of the characters in this production are dirty-minded and brutal, but their nasty personal habits are veils thinly drawn over a childlike need to assert some control in a chaotic world.

The world of The Deatherians is a slapstick exaggeration of a Christian Coalition member's worst pronouncements about moral collapse. Tellingly, John O'Keefe has centered his play in Amsterdam, generally celebrated by Libertarians and cultural liberals alike as the most cheerfully permissive city in the West, a paragon of sanity about sex and drugs for people who criticize America's innately puritanical vice code.

And yet, for O'Keefe, Amsterdam "in the near future" (the play's designated time) is a cesspool of despair and alienation. He creates hash bars, strip joints, alleyways, and midnight street corners where lonely individuals strive to gratify their most physical cravings, although there's always a poignant emotional thread inside their gropings.

Redeeming humanity is much less apparent when The Deatherians takes us inside the laboratory of a pair of doctors (Bruce DuBose and Christopher Ray Allison) who specialize in performing acts of euthanasia--sometimes whether the patient wants it or not. "I hate these HMO deaths," sighs Dr. Krator (DuBose), a man so numb to his own power over life that he can only offer bitterly sarcastic sentiments when his idealistic assistant Dr. Torvald (Allison) expresses moral qualms about their duties--which include harvesting the organs of the deceased for transplants. But Dr. Torvald has slowly become absorbed in his own independent studies that have determined that the brain waves of a small percentage of the human population contain "a deatherian spike" that keeps them immune to the fatal blasts of electricity these doctors administer. This discovery will, of course, throw a wrench into the futuristic cost-consciousness of medical care.

Meanwhile, Dr. Krator becomes mired in his own personal obsessions, which involve a stripper-prostitute named Morivia (Jenni Tooley) and a vigilante street guru named Hatherdal (Tina Parker), the latter of whom has created an impromptu religion based on the philosophies of Dr. Jack Kevorkian. She's intent on relieving as many people as possible from life's suffering--once again, whether they want it or not.

As a script, The Deatherians flirts with a lot of profound subjects it never explores in depth. This is what lends the many crude outbursts of humor in the Undermain's production a sense of reckless bravado--and a certain puerile superficiality when you cast your mind back to the random quality of the myriad exploits you've witnessed. Still, if you're determined to submit to the telling of an elaborate, rather meanspirited dirty joke, you won't find a more skillful teller than the Undermain, whose ensemble cast for this production is buoyant, intense, sometimes even virtuosic.

Selecting highlights from performances as first-rate as this is a random bit of business, but here goes. Bruce DuBose and Jenni Tooley are exquisite as what constitutes this play's romantic leads, but the supporting characters provide the most memorable ammunition for John O'Keefe's rapid-fire comic sensibility. Rhonda Boutte is deliciously seedy and insinuating as the pimplike Jerry, who keeps Dr. Krator on a short leash because of his desire for Morivia. Greg Gormley, so extravagant in his many lead roles with Classic Theatre Company, is nearly unrecognizable here in a fine-tuned performance as a snivelling psychiatrist with a hilarious brain disorder. Cameron Cobb is effective in his scenes as an intellectually challenged henchman for the raving Hatherdal, but nothing prepares us for his delicate turn as a porn star with a taste for tobacco and intimidation. When Cobb approaches Bruce DuBose on a street corner, we don't know whether he means to proposition or assault his fellow actor, and he maintains that tense, beguiling ambiguity throughout the scene. It's a remarkable piece of work.

The Deatherians is just as obscene as any rumors will likely describe, and if the playwright can't quite lift his powerful themes out of the sewer he so memorably creates, Undermain actors lend capable wings to the cause.

The Deatherians runs through November 23. Call 747-5515.

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Jimmy Fowler