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Theater Review

Worlds of Porn, Parody Get Mixed Up in 'Steeltown'

June 19, 1998|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Imagine a day in the life of Little Annie Fanny, the nymphomaniac pixie of the old Playboy cartoon strip. And her sister.

In "Steeltown," at the Actors' Gang in Hollywood, playwright-director Michael Sargent indulges his apparent obsession with the peculiar universe of the porn film. He seems as fond of the cheerfully absurd behavior of the characters who dwell in this world as he is of the pathologies keeping them there. "Steeltown," however, is no "Boogie Nights." It is dramatically weightless. Sargent uses cartoon-bright, sexually graphic material as comedic oxygen, gambling that laughter from his broad jokes will merge with the audience's titillated gasps at how excessive he and his actors are willing to be. For the most part, that gamble pays off. "Steeltown" is genuinely outrageous.

"Steeltown" opens one morning in a small house in Steeltown, Ind., 1989. Carol Feelgood (Leena) and her sister Diane (Clare Wren) wake up in their bunk beds, dancing in their tiny, boa-trimmed negligees--the blond Carol in white, the brunet Diane in black. There is literally nothing we don't see of Carol as she prances around the house doing her chores to loud pseudo-funky music (by Don Preston). Grinning at the audience, the women become intimate with props like a champagne bottle and a watering can, handling them with the unmistakable panache of hard-core porn stars.

"I wonder what other people do all day long," sighs Carol, using one of her two or three blank (and very funny) expressions. Miss July 1980, Carol was once run out of her hometown--just past the city limits--by an angry mob of wives and girlfriends. Now, freshly back from a mental institution, she is ready to resume sisterly conversations with Diane. "I miss the Rams!" whines Carol. "The Rams only wanted one thing from you!" lectures Diane.

Enter their dates for the evening. It may be 1989, but Bo (Jason Reed) and Will Workaday (Kirk Ward) wear handlebar mustaches and haircuts from '70s hell, wispy long in the back and intricately fanned in the front. Hilarious parodies of bar-bell masculinity, they look like the strong men of old (before the fashion became buffed-to-the-max) who wore striped bathing suits while lifting weights. Looking for a husband, Diane has had a "neighbor lady" prepare the men a nice, home-cooked meal, which will be eventually scattered over the kitchen. It's just that kind of household. The evening ends with the men wearing nothing but their socks, butting chests in a testosterone dance of superiority.

In "Steeltown," your jaw may drop as often as the men drop their pants. When they do so, and simulate sex with the women, the thin line between parody and porn is crossed. Sargent obviously delights in the confusion of genres, and he assures a veneer of authenticity by casting Leena (a.k.a. Kathleen Mazzotta), until recently an adult film "superstar." In the end, you may be unsure of whether you've seen an outrageous farce or the real thing. In a way, you've seen both.

*

* "Steeltown," Actors' Gang El Centro Theater, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Ends July 23. $12. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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