Rough Trade

Smart dialogue, simulated sex, and simulated emotions

Of all the stage companies in South Florida, the Edge Theatre is perhaps the best-named. Jim Tommaney's ragtag outfit has survived for many years on the far fringes of the local theater scene, and his choice of programming is almost always sharp and provocative. The literate, Ivy-educated Tommaney is a local phenomenon. His courtly, buttoned-down demeanor belies his radical tastes, which tend toward tales of gay sex, violence, and moral depravity. And his producing style resembles a veteran guerrilla chieftain, working with few funds, little institutional structure, and an ever-changing ensemble of hunky young recruits.

Edge Theatre has scrambled from one performance space to another over the past decade or so, ranging from Miami Beach to Fort Lauderdale and back again. Now, the company has found a dandy new home at Piccadilly Gardens in Miami's Design District. In a small room off Piccadilly's courtyard, Edge is presenting Mark Ravenhill's scandalous British hit Shopping & Fucking, which has been adapted to a South Beach setting. The story centers on a bisexual ménage à trois -- Mark, Lulu, and Robbie, who are having an awful time getting together the rent money. Mark, who struggles with a heroin habit and an inability to abide close emotional connections, plans to go get rehab help. But soon, he's been thrown out of rehab and finds an underage rent boy, Gary, for some commercial sex.

Gary, it turns out, is more complicated than he first appears. He's really a rich kid who has fled the sexual abuse of his stepfather and harbors some really masochistic desires he wants Mark to fulfill. Meanwhile, Robbie and Lulu get into drug-dealing to pay the rent, but when the hapless Robbie screws this up, the duo must find a way to come up with money fast or their supplier will come knocking with a nasty temper and an electric drill.

Ravenhill's script combines bitter, smart dialogue with a lot of simulated bodily functions (the story begins with vomiting and proceeds to displays of gay sex). With its hopeless, depraved characters and netherworld setting, it's a sort of sexually explicit Lower Depths with the comedic rhythms of Oscar Wilde. There are some intriguing ideas and scabrous comedic riffs here as Ravenhill flings off a series of sharp quips like darts at a bull's-eye. But much of this seems rather juvenile, and for all the deliberate scandal-mongering, the story, like the production, is rather tepid. Will these characters manage to get enough money to pay their rent, and will the audience care? Yes and no.

The lion's share of this production's weaknesses lies in the fact that Edge's novice actors and director clearly lack the skill and precision to pull off the textual and subtextual demands of this material. And while the simulated sex seems quite real, the same can't be said for the simulated emotions. As with the production of the interesting Versace murder tale Couturier last season, Edge seems to have a casual relationship with professionalism. Certainly, the company's lack of financial funds necessitates thrift-store production values, but there's no excuse for thrift-store performance values, especially as local production quality and audience expectations continue to rise. To keep its edge, this Edge better sharpen its skills.

STAGE NOTES: Sad news for Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables. Its current show, Little Shop of Horrors, was scheduled to move to Broadway in August. But the Broadway producers announced recently that they are pulling the plug on these plans. Evidently unhappy with Connie Grappo's staging, the producers are talking with veteran Broadway director Jerry Zaks to rework the show. Little Shop would have been the first Actors' Playhouse project (it coproduced) to hit Broadway.

Although this must be a disappointment for AP's Barbara Stein and David Arisco, there's a sort of silver lining. For starters, AP is now in "the show," and if the company keeps thinking big, sooner or later an AP project will land on and take Broadway. For follow-ups, this Little Shop, invites comparisons to the theater's regular fare. And its quality standards hold up well. Thinking back on this past season -- Floyd Collins, The Sound of Music, Comic Potential -- the company's regular directing/design team showed more inspiration and skill than the Broadway imports. So that's something to cheer about.

But there's also a cautionary lesson for Actors' Playhouse in Little Shop's demise. This production is so conservative, so reverent of the original staging, that it has little life of its own. By taking next to no risks, it cut its own throat.

More New York-related news. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra has decided to abandon its home since 1962 at Lincoln Center to return to its old haunts at Carnegie Hall. This follows the New York City Opera's plans to leave Lincoln Center as well for a downtown location. The turmoil has stirred up a lot of chat about the value of huge, isolated performing-arts centers like Lincoln Center: A major complaint is the impersonal, isolated feel of such complexes and how they are cut off from the pulse of normal urban street life.

South Florida already has two such complexes -- the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach and the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. A third is amid construction -- and controversy -- in Miami. And the same complaints raised in New York are applicable down here. My take is that these large centers have value if they in fact provide quality performance spaces, which the Kravis and Broward centers certainly do. More important, unlike New York, South Florida has few alternative spaces. Miami certainly needs some kind of orchestra hall and dedicated opera/dance hall. And large arts centers are a lot better than no halls at all.

The trick is finding ways to link these big projects to the surrounding neighborhoods. I think the solution for Miami lies in thinking small -- small restaurants, bars, galleries, clubs -- and yes, small performing-arts organizations that could set up shop around the large arts center. The Kravis really already has this: There is plenty of commercial and arts activity adjacent to it. This kind of project would most likely take determined civic planning and -- horrors! -- government subsidies to get things going. But developing small, arts-friendly endeavors could do the trick in creating a lively, thriving downtown nightlife (and the tax revenue that would come with it), a dream that big arts complexes can't provide on their own.

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