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SMUT

Prop Theatre

at the Garage

Paul Peditto's plays reveal a fascination with the story-telling mode. In his new one-act Smut, as in such previous efforts as A Fire Was Burning Over the Dumpling House One Chinese New Year, Scam, and Of All the Wide Torsos in All the Wild Glen, Peditto frequently uses live and taped narration to frame his scenes, and it's clear he's as interested in the narration's tone of voice as in the events it relates. Similarly, encounters between two people in his plays' scenes often consist of one character telling a story while the other character more or less listens. At their best, these story-telling sequences propel the play in an unusual way: dramatic revelations emerge unexpectedly, almost offhandedly, as characters are taken from one emotional state to another, not by action but by the imaginative power of words.

When Peditto's writing is in good form and is supported by a strong and complementary production (as was the case in Igloo's 1986 staging of A Fire Was Burning . . .), Peditto's style can produce some moving and thought-provoking effects. When it falls short of the mark, as in Smut, the result, though still interesting, is sloppy and almost incomprehensible.

The story of a young man's career as a clerk in a New York pornography store, Smut seeks to evoke an atmosphere of moral decay and emotional confusion. Pauley Vegas, the play's hero, is caught in a spiritual grind; the sleaziness of the people and place surrounding him have gotten under his skin to the point that he can't cope with the situation rationally. Pauley's plight is suggested by the tough, edgy, street-poetry style in which he speaks; but the style isn't enough. The images in Pauley's dialogue don't add up to anything more troubling than a portrait of a dingy and unpleasant environment--hardly the microcosm of soul-rotting degeneracy reflected in Pauley's overwrought reactions.

Smut is at its most convincing when it depicts Pauley's sex shop as a business like any other business--plagued by obnoxious managers, petty theft, a picky and petulant clientele, equipment malfunction, and plant deterioration. (In one of the show's more spontaneous touches, some of the triple-X-rated magazines taped to the shop wall occasionally fall to the floor, requiring the actors to pick the magazines up and return them to their places.) Pauley's peep-show emporium could just as easily be a dry-cleaning plant, a discount store, a high-priced law firm, or a munitions company doing business with the Pentagon.

But Peditto doesn't pursue the social critique inherent in the normality of his abnormal setting; instead, he drags us into an incoherent nightmare about underground sex as symbol of both moral and medical disease.

It's no accident that Smut takes place, as one character notes, in the middle of a "sexual plague." In a time of rampant venereal disease ranging from AIDS to herpes, the image of a bunch of weird, wired guys wandering through a maze of dimly lit booths can't help but be disturbing. Does a porn shop embody the degradation of impersonal sexual addiction, or is it a valid and valuable fantasy factory, offering safe vicarious kicks to people living in fear? Does a smut shop alleviate shame, or breed it? Can honest, nurturing friendships exist in such circumstances, or is commerce the only common denominator for human contact?

Smut raises these questions but then drops them, preferring instead to drag us into Pauley's particular mental morass. The play climaxes with a bizarre dream sequence in which Pauley is made the star-victim of a sadomasochistic movie directed by and starring his friends and family, then concludes with a late-night encounter between Pauley and a bandaged punk who may be a madman, the angel of death, or just a disgruntled customer.

The images Peditto accumulates in his play are at once simplistic and convoluted, overly obvious and unclear; the play sinks under the weight of its own murky anger because in its inarticulate clutter it has failed to involve the audience enough that they help shoulder the weight. Pauley's case is finally too individual to matter much.

The script's flaws are exacerbated by some problems in Scott Vehill's direction. While he's obviously paid attention to keeping his actors truthful in their characterizations, Vehill has neglected to make sure they can be seen and heard when it matters. Key scenes are staged downstage center on the floor, nearly out of sight unless you're sitting in the first two or three rows in the long, rectangular former garage in which the production is housed; and important speeches are too often hard to understand. Peditto's use of language is quite challenging: though the words he writes are mostly short and simple, they are strung together in long, arcing phrases that demand much better developed speech and breath technique than most of these performers possess.

Still, there are significant virtues in the production, too. Karen Goodman's terrific set design transforms the bare garage space into a creepy little storefront painted a ghastly shade of pink and decorated with plastic-sealed magazines, video boxes, and an attention-grabbing pair of anatomically equipped plastic sheep. (Greg O'Shannesy is credited in the program as "adult entertainment consultant.") Goodman also provides a huge pair of wooden hands, modeled on the hands of God and Adam from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel painting, for Pauley's dream scene. Michael Moore's lighting design achieves some interesting effects, especially a memorable silhouette in the play's most moving moment, a brief encounter between Pauley and a cash-strapped prostitute; Chris Peditto's sound design creates a musical backdrop of rock, jazz, third-world, and classical music in both mainstream and avant-garde veins.

And despite their technical deficiencies, the actors (most associated with the fringe-oriented Prop, Igloo, Mary-Arrchie, and Theatre of the Reconstruction troupes) are generally honest. Doug Spinuzza digs deep into the physically and emotionally taxing role of Pauley to convey the character's frustration, anguish, and emotional paralysis. In the supporting cast, only Charles Pike comes off false, with his overly stylized portrayal of Pauley's slimy boss; especially strong performances are given by Peggy Dunne as the prostitute Celia, clinging desperately to her humanity in a dehumanizing way of life, and David Robinson as Pauley's coworker Jack, an energetic young flake whose imaginative, positive response to his situation contrasts with Pauley's emotional isolation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Linn Ehrlich.

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