Tom Eyen first wrote "Why Hanna's Skirt Won't Stay Down" as a one-act in 1965. But its imagery and themes haven't let go of him--echoes of his fascination appeared in those overblown poster images of females in "Women Behind Bars"--and he's back again with a somewhat revised version, which opened Tuesday at Coast Playhouse.
"Hanna" is a provocative, bright but uneven blend of Eyen's early preoccupation with the lurid appeal of the carnival--its noise, its smells, that relentless pokey music, its lipstick colors--and the growing sophistication that he brings to his funhouse revisits as he gets older. There's something primal in the carny's energized vulgarity that complements the ambiance of raunchy female sex, of sexual heat and disappointment, and Eyen (with considerable help from Susan Tyrrell) plays up both sides with a slashing comic edge.
Hanna is the woman who goes to a Coney Island funhouse every payday and stands over the breezehole to get a charge out of giving the voyeurs out there a quick view of her white satin heart-shaped panties (cleverly designed by costumer Madeline Ann Graneto to resemble a pincushion).
Hanna is in effect a sexual pincushion--she's available for anyone who wants her and she doesn't wait to be asked. Desire (much more for connection than for sex) and self-hate chafe each other so vigorously that they suppurate into a gaudy, frenzied parody of female allure. Hanna's image is a neon riot of sexual cliches, and the play has the same energy and drive as Hubert Selby's novel "The Last Exit to Brooklyn," the punishingly bleak story of an illiterate nymphomaniac who's killed in a gang rape.
Eyen's theatrical sense and comedic buoyancy--particularly in Act II--keep "Hanna" from being a downer. It's there we learn more of Hanna's sister, Sophie--a bald, bewigged Avon saleslady, built like a refrigerator (shades of Lu Leonard in "Women Behind Bars"), who is just as covetous of ripe young men as Hanna but, unlike her sister, has the thinnest veneer of propriety. Sophie has her rationales. She's fat and disagreeable, but she managed to elope to Jersey City (she tells us without irony) and her two-bit job is still a job. Hanna was always the prettier; Hanna is the slut. Siblings cast each other in the same roles and stay true to type. That and mention of Hanna's father dying when she was 16 give us a bit of a psychological backdrop.
The portrait of Hanna isn't psychological, however; it's theatrical, even burlesque (there's a scene when the sisters meet up in Egypt, but it's like an old vaudeville house notion of Egypt, with desert and pyramids painted on a curtain that rolls down). Hanna is not an unwise woman when, for example, she tells us she no longer believes but the habit of religion remains. And Sophie tells us she achieved peace once she stopped dreaming. But this is not a play of observations, aphorisms or naturalistic chat. The gaudy carny ambiance of hype without real fulfillment, the everlasting come-on, is something Hanna understands without ever wanting to escape. Her whole life is a response to a come-on of her own frenzied devising. The show is everything (as Marilyn Monroe knew when she stood over the subway grill--another skirt over a breezehole--for that memorable publicity shot from "The Seven Year Itch"). "You smile, " Hanna tells us at the end.
Sometimes you sense a real misogynistic streak in "Hanna," as you might have felt in "Women Behind Bars," which also blew up female stereotypes in a kind of reverse gay-bashing. But it feels more like a fascination-repulsion that extends into the theater itself. Sexual allure--the makeup, the dress, the provocative attitude--is theatrical; what's true of the theater is also Hanna's truth which, try as she might with a number of beautiful young men all named Arizona, she can't escape: You can look but you can't touch.
Tyrrell, a great low comedienne, brings an almost savage comic energy to Hanna, from her scruffy red pumps to her clump of pink-champagne-colored hair. She has a lean, hard, tough-looking body and a rice-paper-white face she sets in a tense mockery of smiling charm (she sometimes affects the voice of Katharine Hepburn). Her Hanna is perpetually driven. Diana Bellamy's Sophie is smoother but no less blunt in her way. Bellamy's over-mascaraed eyes are clever and she speaks with a sneer. Unwigged, she looks like the actor Edward Arnold--another indication that the truth of these characters is fundamentally androgynous--something also suggested by Steve Lyon as the paragon of male-model narcissism (a beautiful, empty young man like the character in Albee's "The Sandbox"). The women fantasize him, but the fantasy is all they get. Just like in the fun house.
Ben Hinchman is excellent as the barker. Ron Link directs. Roger Berlind and Catalina Production Group are producers, and they've spared no expense in creating atmosphere and particulars. Scenery is by Fred M. Duer, Brian Bailey and Greg Sullivan did the lights, Nathan Wang the sound and Chelsea the makeup and hair.
Performances Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m.; Fridays, 8:30 p.m., and Saturdays, 7 and 10 p.m. at 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, (213) 650-8507. Runs indefinitely.