The Cypress College press release announcing Jeffrey Warren Towne's "Tainted Love" is enough to make any new playwright wince.
This first work by Towne, a 28-year-old theater arts student, is boldly described as reflecting Sam Shepard's incest-tinged "Fool for Love" and film maker David Lynch's bizarre "Blue Velvet." That's some company to keep.
"Tainted Love"--staged tonight and Saturday at the Studio Theater on campus and the college's entry in this year's American College Theater Festival competition--bears similarities to both, but it is not something Towne likes to have emphasized.
The thoughtful Santa Ana writer doesn't come out and say it, but you can tell by his frown that he would rather have his work seen as original. Still, when asked about the Shepard/Lynch comparison, he politely tries to make sense of it.
"I admire Shepard's work very much and feel there is an affinity between us, both because of his past, which is similar to mine, and some of his themes," Towne said. "Personally, I don't know if I really see (a big similarity) in my work, but I guess it's all open to interpretation, and someone could see it that way.
He sighed. "I'm not so sure (about the 'Blue Velvet' association), either. I think it's because my play deals with what's going on in a small town, the sadness and perversity that is happening just underneath the surface."
Like Lynch's darkly erotic movie, "Tainted Love" takes a peephole-look at individuals living close to the fringe--in this case, a group of oil rig workers, especially the layered relationship of two brothers, one who stayed at home and the other who returns after becoming a Hollywood star.
And like "Fool for Love," it is set in rural Texas, is marked by graphic language and has themes that touch on incest. If it was a movie, "Tainted Love" might be rated X.
Although Towne and director Mark Majarian said the play is not offensive, they admitted it may not appeal to everyone. With that in mind, the drama department has taken care to let the people know what they are dealing with. Campus flyers refer to the adult subject matter, and a sign at the box office warns about the play's explicit content.
"This would be pretty strong stuff for the regular audiences (that come to Cypress productions)," said Majarian, an instructor of advanced acting. "But I've never thought this was too much. I don't think it's any more difficult to take than any of Shepard's work."
Towne did acknowledge that a few people walked out on the play when it opened last week. "I think it was more the strong language than anything else," he said, adding that because of the cautionary billing, generally a younger, more accepting crowd has been showing up.
Almost nonchalantly, the playwright defended the graphic quality of "Tainted Love" as a commitment to realism and its dialogue as "accurately reflecting the talk among oil riggers." Towne said he was exposed to such language by his father, who worked the fields throughout Texas when Towne was a child.
"That type of language is really indigenous to that region; that's just how the riggers talk. Actually, the people he (my father) worked with talked much more coarsely than even I tapped into. I toned it down some."
Majarian and Towne also don't believe that the explicit material will hurt the play's chances in the play-writing competition. The drama's strong character studies and plot development should give it a reasonable chance, they said.
The first step comes Saturday when the play will be reviewed by competition judges. If they like it, "Tainted Love" may be produced in a regional festival scheduled for February in San Diego. The winners then move on to Washington in March for the national festival.
At first "rebellious and not sure I wanted to conform to the idea of a contest," Towne has since become excited by the prospects of winning. He realizes that the recognition could help him get future plays produced (he's working on "Last Ride at the Donkey Show," a one-act centering on three teen-age boys and their relationship with a washed-up Big Band singer) or create opportunities in screenwriting, his goal for a career.
"I've tried not to look too far down the road," Towne said, "but sure, subconsciously I know how much it could help me. It's all a little scary, to tell the truth."
"Tainted Love" will be staged tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. at Cypress College's Studio Theater at 9200 Valley View St. in Cypress. Information: (714) 821-6320.