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Vogel's 'Hot' Mixes Reality and Fantasy With a Passion

February 02, 1996|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

LOS ANGELES — The new Wolfskill Theater kicks off its first full-scale production with Paula Vogel's "Hot 'N' Throbbing." Tucked into a bohemian corner of the loft district downtown, the tiny theater is decorated with rough objects d'art--it looks like a coffee bar where a beat poetry reading might erupt at any minute.

Wolfskill has picked a difficult and upsetting play by the author of "The Baltimore Waltz," a wonderful writer whose work is little-seen in Los Angeles. This marks the West Coast debut of Vogel's 1994 play.

A nondescript mom named Charlene (Annie Combs) sits at her desk working. To keep Reeboks on her two teenage kids' feet, she is the story editor at Gyno films, which means she writes porn with a supposedly feminist twist. She claims she does not use female bodies as objects of desires, but focuses instead on the desires of the female.

But--from what we hear of her work, spoken by two heavy-breathing actors (Amy Elizabeth Kane and Kyle McCulloch) who stand above the action on a catwalk--it's basically the same dreck found in any dime-store soft-porn romance novel.

What's amusing is how Charlene uses all the libidinous stuff floating around her household and filters it into her screenplays. With a buxom teenage daughter (Tracy Hudak) and painfully nerdy and pent-up son (Joe Seely), she has plenty to draw on.

The scenes shift between reality and Charlene's screenplay, and we are never sure what it all means, morally, for a mother to be using her kids' sexual energy in this way.

Things get clearer with the arrival of Charlene's estranged husband Clyde (Michael Shamus Wiles), who's furious about the restraining order Charlene has had slapped on him. Charlene's ready: She has a gun, and when he starts to get angry, she shoots him in the butt. Still, we're not sure how to read their obviously violent relationship, because Vogel keeps shifting the tone to make it appear harmlessly comic and ordinary.

The play's severe shifts in tone present a major problem for any director, and Paul Mackley has not begun to solve them. He ignores the playwright's bright, comic colors--which are there for a reason--and steers the actors into lugubrious realism, which saps the energy right out of the play.

There's a lot of slow motion. Characters are given time, too much time, to say their lines and find their pain. The play needs a sharp tone and it needs attitude.

The problem is that the play culminates in a very frightening and realistic act of violence. It seems as if to respect the horror of that act, Mackley has staged the rest of the play as a prelude to it.

*

The cast seems lost without a strong intention in most of the early scenes. Wiles stands out, though, managing his character's catwalk between teary abject apology, normal everyday guy-ness and a terrible fury.

Vogel never takes the easy argument by suggesting that Charlene's dabbling in porn brings about her tragic fate. She does suggest, however, that she is foolish to think that an advanced feminist rationale about how she is in control of her life and her body is enough to make it be true.

* "Hot 'N' Throbbing," Wolfskill Theatre, 806 E. 3rd St., Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Indefinitely. $12. (213) 620-9229. Running time: 2 hours.

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