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THEATER REVIEW

With impure intentions

'The Hollywood Father/Daughter Purity Ball' was inspired by -- and points its barbs at -- the Christian ones.

September 11, 2007|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

The woman in the prom dress and plastic tiara heaved a heavy sigh. "It's not easy," she said, "staying pure in Los Angeles." She was standing in a creaky Mexican restaurant on La Cienega that sits next to a strip club and faces a lingerie store with pirate hussy and naughty nurse costumes in the window. The woman took a swig of her adult beverage and winked. "Sometimes, it's really hard, if you know what I mean. Sometimes, you don't even want to try."

You might bump into that same woman Saturday night at the Acapulco restaurant; like last weekend, that will be the site of a loopy event called the "Hollywood Father/Daughter Purity Ball," a feisty satire of the purity ball movement that has become a staple of evangelical communities in Bible Belt states.

A purity ball, for the uninitiated, is a formal dance where young girls (usually teens and pre-teens but sometimes as young as 6) and their fathers come as a couple and each takes a pledge to protect the daughter's virginity until her wedding night. The dads often present their gown-wearing "date" with a ring to symbolize the commitment and then everyone dines on white cake.

Purity balls began nine years ago in Colorado Springs, Colo., and supporters praise them as lovely galas that strengthen the bond between fathers and daughters and allow the youngsters to dress up like a ballroom princess in a wholesome setting laced with Christian imagery. But there's a considerable number of outsiders who reflexively find the whole concept more than a little unsettling; the plunging necklines, slow dances and constant talk of protecting "flowers" drifts a bit too close to those child beauty pageants that another Colorado resident, JonBenet Ramsey, once competed in.

There are plenty of genuine purity balls in California, but the one at the Acapulco is not one of them. The "Hollywood Father/Daughter Purity Ball" is a bawdy spoof from a creative team that includes writer-producer Maggie Rowe, producer Laura Summer and Emmy-winning writer Jim Vallely ("Arrested Development"). Rowe has experience in tweaking born-again themes: "The Hollywood Father/Daughter Purity Ball" gets its inspiration from Christian-minded purity balls.

In 2004, she was behind "Hollywood Hell House," which presented a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of the "Hell House" script used for regional Christian haunted houses. Those real Hell Houses, an entrenched Halloween tradition in the Heartland, show gory images of the consequences of homosexuality, drug use and premarital sex.

The Hell Houses date to the early 1970s, but in recent history one of the most influential sponsors of the scare-them-straight events has been Pastor Keenan Roberts of (you guessed it) Colorado. As Rowe put it: "What is it with that state? When did it get so creepy?"

That doesn't mean that making a parody of it is fair game to everyone. Rowe's spoof show had been scheduled for the Bulgarian Cultural Center on Vermont, but late last week officials at that venue abruptly pulled the plug after learning more about the event. There was a harried search for a replacement site, which led to the closed-down Mexican restaurant. (The show got another last-minute curve ball when Bill Maher, scheduled to be the faux pastor for the show, backed out for personal reasons; Rowe said he is expected to be on stage Saturday.) Tickets are $30 and include dinner; information is at www.hollywoodpurityball.com.

The show last weekend featured a triple dose of double-entendres from the get-go. Rowe, grinning vacantly like a Stepford wife, opened the event by asking the crowd: "Who's ready to ball with me?"

The program centered on the fictitious Pilsner family, a screeching brood from Aurora, Ill., with three daughters and a son of questionable sexual orientation who, the audience is told, is fresh from Bangkok, where he does missionary work with local boys. Also on stage was Fishes With Loaves, billed as an Orange County Christian folky improv group (think Will Ferrell's acoustic shticks on "Saturday Night Live") and the slightly lascivious Pastor Larry, portrayed by comedian Larry Miller, who riffed on the most current political sex scandal. "There's no toe-tappers here," he bellowed, "but we all take a mighty wide-sized stance."

Rowe takes personal glee in lampooning the grass-roots theater of fundamentalist Christians. She grew up in Chicago in a born-again household and was constantly reminded that she must not kiss a man until her wedding day. She said the "insidious" message beneath the surface of the purity ball scene is that young girls are "property," first to their fathers, then husbands, and always to God. "Marriage is a property transfer, and these events also completely festish-ize these little girls."

It's hard to keep track of the boundaries of real-world morality with the current super-sexed cultural images out there -- even something as overt as "The Hollywood Father/Daughter Purity Ball" can be misunderstood: After the opening number last week, a song called "Saving It All for Daddy," two aghast women in the Acapulco audience got up and headed for the door. "They were in their 40s and dressed like secretaries and thought it was a real purity ball," Rowe said after the show. "On the way out, one turned to the other, and all she said was, 'I'm so sorry.' "

geoff.boucher@latimes.com

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'Hollywood Father/Daughter Purity Ball'

Where: Acapulco Restaurant,

385 N. La Cienega, West Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Price: $30

Contact: (323) 960-5771

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