Of Sluts, Cuddles And Elusive Art

It was James Agate who reminded us that a dirty mind is a perpetual feast, and that’s certainly true of this confident, carefree stage version of the 1978 porn movie Debbie Does Dallas at the Jane Street Theatre. The fun adaptation is by Erica Schmidt, who also directs expertly. But the big surprise is that Ms. Schmidt is a disciple of Bertolt Brecht.

The classic American fable has always been perceived as living proof that dreams can come true. As before, cheerleader captain Debbie and her fellow cheerleaders and sluts with their inviting, slightly unblemished thighs sell their bodies to buy her a plane ticket so Debbie can join the Dallas Cowgirls. But Ms. Schmidt has also shrewdly mined the original text for its hidden emotional undertow, as Trevor Nunn did with the unknown dark horizon of Oklahoma! The fascinating outcome is the world’s first production of a saucy Mother Courage .

As the tragic heroine is forced to shtup her way to Dallas, the imaginary cart she drags behind her is clearly the weight of capitalist exploitation. Ms. Schmidt’s Brechtian approach has unearthed an exemplary morality tale of opportunism and survival on the body-strewn battlefield of the American sex wars. Debbie realizes this for herself when, in an epiphany of self-knowledge, she exclaims: “I can’t believe I have all this money and all it cost me was my soul.”

Food for thought there. Note the pure Brechtian use of the intimate stage with its supertitles-“The Locker Room,” “The Practice Field”-announcing each scene while simultaneously distancing us from it. Note also the Brechtian use of symbolic props (candles, bananas), as well as the alienation acting technique of everyone in the talented, winking cast, which is led by Sherie Rene Scott as Debbie, the role originated on film by Bambi Woods. You may remember Ms. Scott as the shopaholic Amneris, daughter of the Pharaoh, in Aida . A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. But the lovely, game Ms. Scott was great fun in Aida, too.

Sometimes the cast gets the giggles, and I don’t blame them. You would, too, if you were performing in Debbie Does Dallas . Sex isn’t designed to work onstage, of course. It’s difficult enough offstage. The show therefore makes the right choice by wittily-and dopily-satirizing the twilight zone of cheerleading Americana and its timeless, hormonal connection to the frolicsome, towel-flipping sports jocks of the locker room. At my school in England, library duties and buggery were more the widespread norm, and to the outsider, American sexuality can seem awesomely bizarre. What kind of Puritan country, I wonder, would invent cheerleaders in nubile-little-schoolgirl uniforms, flashing their elastic panty line of desire to one and all?

A free country, yessiree. Debbie’s country.

Alfie’s Oscar Complex

My difficulty with the small, muffled musical A Man of No Importance at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, Lincoln Center, is that it talks of “poetry and art in the air”-and in the air they stay. A cloud of respectable good intentions hovers over this story about a gay bus conductor who comes out of the closet. The director is Joe Mantello, whose previous production, Take Me Out, was about a gay baseball star who comes out of the closet.

Quiet, safe worthiness and sanctimony are never exciting components in a musical, particularly one that pretends to flights of Wildean fancy. As John Lahr puts it, “Modesty in a musical is about as welcome as primness in a whore.” A Man of No Importance , starring the excellent Roger Rees-and created by composer Stephen Flaherty, lyricist Lynn Ahrens and playwright Terrence McNally-is unusual, alas, only in its recessive nature. It will never set the world on fire. But its gifted creative team have actually produced a contradiction in terms: a self-effacing musical about an empty shell.

Based on the minor 1994 film starring Albert Finney, A Man of No Importance intends to make a bigger statement than it achieves about the transforming power of theater and art on the repressed, timid life of an anonymous, middle-aged Irishman named Alfie. What it really does is settle for a minor showbiz fable that’s meant to tug at our heartstrings. Set in Dublin in the early 60’s, it can therefore be adorably “quaint” and “eccentric” when it needs be, which is often. Its bachelor hero, Alfie the bus conductor, lives with his spinster sister, Lily (the great Faith Prince, of all un-spinsterish people), and entertains his enchanted bus passengers by day with readings of Oscar Wilde.

As Oscar himself once said: “Well, why not?” Alfie has an Oscar complex. In the lonely evenings, he’s busily directing Salome with his lovably inept amateur theatrical group at the church hall. And he’s also haunted by Oscar’s ghost, who turns up from time to time in his usual velvet cloak, bringing temptation Alfie’s way with ominous stuff like: “There is no hell but this, Alfie Byrne, a body without a soul; or a soul without a body.”

Why, it almost might be Oscar speaking. But not really. Mr. McNally’s stab at epigrams (plus direct quotations from Oscar) try to give the musical its artistic gloss and air of good taste. But it’s all too self-conscious to rouse us much, like Alfie’s maudlin, introverted big song, “Man in the Mirror,” a downer in search of drama:

Where is my golden love?

Where but in musty plays?

Who is this man in the thickening body

Riding a bus

To the end of his days?

Not to worry. All will turn out well, though the diocese bans Salome for indecency and a pretty newcomer in town turns out, unsurprisingly, to be pregnant. She was meant for Alfie. But Alfie comes out of the closet-finally!-and his loving older sis is briefly upset. (“We sat across this table and lived a lie!”) The lovable Irish Catholic community then abandons Alfie. But everyone returns nobly to stand by him for the finale. They’re not really bigots, you see. They just seemed that way. It isn’t showbiz without easy sentiment. But it isn’t art, either. Take the shameless number entitled “The Cuddles Mary Gave,” sung by the complacent widower known as Baldy over his poor wife’s grave:

She made the soda bread of angels

And the house was always clean

And the way she pressed a collar,

I looked fit to meet a queen.

But if ever there’s one memory I’d save,

Well, it’s the cuddles Mary gave.

Is that the sound of Oscar throwing up, or is it Mary?