You wouldn't think a gay, Jewish, musical-theater aspirant in recovery would seek employment with high-end hookers. But Josh Mesnik, an out-of-work actor in New York, worked nine months as a receptionist for a dictatorial owner's prostitution business in Boca.
The result is a winning comedy, Have I Got a Girl for You, enjoying its Florida premiere from Island City Stage.
It might as well be called The Devil Wears Fishnets.
Have I Got a Girl for You, through April 27 at Island City Stage at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Drive, Fort Lauderdale; $30; 954-519-2533; islandcitystage.org.
Mike Westrich, who could probably play Hitler and still radiate immense likability, fills the role of Josh. He's 14 days sober at the beginning of the play and living off stipends from his nudnik parents. His only promising job opportunity is at Fillet de Nuit, an escort service run by the tornadic Gina (Sharyn Peoples), a onetime Penthouse model. He gets the position, and the rest is essentially plotless, an episodic insider's ramble through an industry foreign to most of us.
Josh deals with a panoply of johns (all played by Larry Buzzeo) and a needy coterie of escorts (all played by Christina Groom). He handles a full spectrum of issues, from the ladies' sexual preferences to clients' esoteric requests to nosey hotel managers, all while suffering Gina's harangues. And of course, he's trying to form a romantic relationship with an insurance agent who knows nothing about his questionable day job.
Every now and then, Mesnik punctuates his show with fourth-wall-breaking tutorials on the escort business by his onstage avatar, who educates us on topics ranging from the legalities of the industry to the payment structure and the sexual shorthand that turns up in online critiques. Yep, just like theater, it's a review-driven, cutthroat business.
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The jokes fly fast in Mesnik's script, and Michael Leeds directs the play like a snappy, R-rated sitcom, a total 180 from his award-winning, deliberative direction of Island City's The Timekeepers last year. This approach works wonders here, heightening the already artificial world of fantasists and role players. Leeds doesn't even try to hide his Brechtian use of two actors to play 16 parts; once, when Josh is on the phone with two of his escorts, Groom embodies both by ducking behind a sofa to change wigs.
For her part, Groom's performances are each distinct, studied, and memorable, even if she has only a scene or two to create each character. There's the neon-bobbed Russian escort, the dim Southern trollop nicknamed Christmas, and Gina's coke-addicted daughter — to name just a few. Buzzeo likewise disappears into a vast spectrum of roles, most of them hilariously seedy. He gets to play Gina's Italian-American husband, a Hasidic Jew, a nerdy college student, even a black businessman, all of them accurate bordering on ridiculous — or is it the other way around? And as for Westrich, his transition from awkward nebbish to cunning entrepreneur is gradual, subtle, and marvelously invisible, plus his finest comic triumph to date.
No review of Have I Got a Girl for You should go without mentioning the musical theater in-jokes triggered by Mesnik's passion for Broadway. This allows Leeds to pepper Mesnik's reference-heavy script with sound cues from famous (and infamous) musicals. It even ends with a cleverly choreographed performance of an American standard.
Mesnik may have fallen in love with the vintage musical, but if this play is any indication, he'll have a bright future in straight theater. Well, maybe not too straight.