Time Warps: Rocky Takes Us Back, & Comic Potential Predicts the Future

The terrific Broadway revival of Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show on the 25th anniversary of its glorious rock-Gothic inception took me back a bit-namely 25 years, God love us all. Let me tell you something. I have actually seen Tim Curry belting out “I Can Make You a Man” in his fishnet stockings and high heels live . And very tasty he was, too. Those were the days! Those were the days when a transvestite screamer was considered dangerously subversive onstage (though never at home, of course).

Was this why the original Rocky Horror that gave everyone such a laugh when I saw it all those years ago in London bombed when it first played on Broadway in 1975? New York-the sophisticated metropolis!- disapproved . America wasn’t yet ready, it seems, for the sweet bisexual menace of mad Dr. Frank N. Furter and the seduction of its national virgins, Brad and Janet. And so-sad, campy fate- Rocky Horror ended up a cult movie. But there are worse fates. You could end up a stage version of The Full Monty .

Rocky Horror at the Circle in the Square is the first production in the history of theater to include a script created by its audience. That’s why I enjoyed it so much. The hallowed interactive element was new to me. Perhaps I live on the moon, but I’ve never seen the movie version downtown where Rocky cultists dress up as their favorite characters and talk back to the screen. My loss! I’ve seen the new sing-along Sound of Music , however, and very much look forward to its theatricalization. We are now able to join in the opening Latin Mass or hurl abuse at the Baroness. But though some of the comments during The Sound of Music are hilariously rude in the sugary righteousness of it all, Rocky Horror is the prototype.

“Apparently some people don’t know whether they’re at a movie or a play,” Dick Cavett, of all wryly cultivated people, chastised a heckler good-naturedly. Mr. Cavett is the shrewd, ironic choice for Rocky Horror ‘s Narrator, and one of the “idiots savants”-as he calls the cultists-had yelled out “Asshole!” Naturally, I thought it was directed at him. In my ignorance, I didn’t know that the audience screams out “Asshole!” whenever dweeby Brad is mentioned and “Slut!” for chaste Janet.

We could say that the audience participation possesses an Elizabethan verve and wit. Or we needn’t say that at all. We could say it’s fun, impure and simple. Any musical that has a gay Teletubby is fine with me. To my delight, this is also the only show I’ve seen in which the expert performers might pause or flinch for a split second, knowing the audience comment that’s coming. For example, Brad and Janet have arrived in a thunderstorm at the Transylvanian Frank N. Furter’s castle, to be greeted at the door by the ghoulish hunchback Riff Raff, whose line is, “You’re wet.” But with the timing of seasoned pros, the cultists get in first with, “Look between Janet’s legs!”

There’s no end to this. We could have the first interactive Hamlet : “What’s the question!” (“To be or not to be / That is .…”)

Rocky Horror was never subtle. Its second act fell apart 25 years ago and it implodes on the same chaotic high today. But this classic rock hybrid of schlock-horror-movie spoof and androgynous kitsch is a welcome blast from the past. It was always enjoyably silly. Director Christopher Ashley and his creative team have updated its 70′s-corset look appropriately with bondage and chaps. The surprising cast, an unusual combo platter, is first-rate-Mr. Cavett’s professorial Narrator, Tom Hewitt taking on the iconic memory of Tim Curry as Frank N. Furter, Rent alumna Daphne Rubin-Vega as groupie Magenta, hard rock’s Joan Jett as Columbia the Marilyn Manson look-alike, Rául Esparza’s magnetic Riff Raff, the ear-splitting, cross-dressing Lea Delaria in her two manic male roles.

Nor must we forget Jarrod Emick’s Brad Majors and Alice Ripley’s Janet Weiss-good sports both, and both giving super performances of American primness liberated. Poor Janet. “What have you done with Janet?” goes the line onstage. “Everything!” goes the gleeful chorus in the audience.

Silliness-as opposed to foolishness-has always been an English specialty. (Think of John Cleese and his Ministry of Silly Walks.) Alan Ayckbourn is England’s leading farceur and its most prolifically successful dramatist since Shakespeare. Comic Potential , his 53rd play, now at the Manhattan Theatre Club in John Tillinger’s fizzy production, is Mr. Ayckbourn’s weirdly amusing take on the Pygmalion myth, on bad actors, bad television, romantic love, the secret of slapstick and-while he’s at it-the farcically robotic nature of being human.

The captivating performance of the British actress Janie Dee, as the actoid known as Jacie Tripplethree (or JCF31333), is something to behold. Little wonder she’s won every major award in London for her portrait of the virtually impossible-a robot with feelings. Shades of Stanley Kubrick’s HAL with a sense of humor. But Ms. Dee is the miraculous modern equivalent of the Tin Man in a nurse’s uniform. Only Mr. Ayckbourn would conceive of her in this satirical romp set “in the foreseeable future where everything has changed except human nature.”

If Comic Potential has a flaw, it’s that the foreseeable future already seems to be here. The action takes place in a television studio where robots have replaced actors in a third-rate hospital soap opera. When something goes wrong during a take, the actoid nurse suddenly bursts into unprogrammed laughter. Her machinery is human.

The wicked witch, a studio boss named Carla Pepperbloom, therefore orders Jacie melted down. Enter attractive Adam, an aspiring writer and nephew of a wheelchair-bound TV magnate who speaks, for some farcical reason, only through thought transference to his over-dedicated assistant. Adam-played by the talented Alexander Chaplin, giving an impersonation of Hugh Grant, who’s been giving an impersonation of Hugh Grant for years-wants to write a TV drama series for Jacie. I was laughing too much to catch the entire plot of the inner farce, but its outline was this: A female actoid playing another actoid falls off a truck and is found by a farmer and his wife. She thinks they’re her parents, and ends up the mayor.

Anyway, Adam, suffering fatally from “actoid empathy,” falls helplessly in love with Jacie Tripplethree, and they abscond to a luxury hotel. But the confused Jacie can only communicate through her bank of programmed responses from a variety of soap operas. Hence her surprising speech about her heroin-trafficking terrorist sister. There’s also, among many delights and one or two programmed formulas of its own, an embittered TV director who’s seen better days, two lesbians in the control booth, a demonstration of custard-pie humor through innocent eyes, a fashion parade in which Jacie somehow ends up wearing a plastic bag, a joyfully robotic dance and a happy end in which our cyber-doll heroine finds love (and power).

I think I can guess where Ms. Dee’s synthesizer voice comes from- Doctor Who , British TV’s first beloved space-age soap, which had real actoids from outer space known as Daleks. The different accents she slides in and out of with ease are from dreadfully funny North Country soaps. The rest-including the ghost in the machine, the touching, warm, romantic appeal and even fear within Ms. Dee’s JCF31333-is down to her genius.