The Facts of Life at Empire Stage: Blair, Jo, Tootie, and Natalie -- in Drag
There is a place in the Western theater canon for Pinter, O'Neill, and Shakespeare, and there is also a place for shows with lines like "When I was your age, I was as moist as a Sara Lee pound cake."
Jamie Morris' The Facts of Life: The Lost Episode is one of the latter shows; not five minutes go by before the audience is treated to a mutual female masturbation demonstration performed by male actors in drag. There are references to loose vaginas and favored ejaculation destinations on the female anatomy and more puns on words like "coming in" and "going down" than you ever thought possible.
The fact that the show isn't for everyone is axiomatic and beside the point; shoeboxy, luridly lit, hard-to-find venues like Empire Stage are made for productions like this, and it plays winningly to its niche audience. The overarching joke, of course, is that you couldn't say any of this stuff on television, especially in the 1980s, when the squeaky-clean Facts of Life beamed into millions of homes. It was set in an all-female boarding school presided over by Charlotte Rae's Edna Garrett, who became mother figure, dietitian, and moral compass for the multicultural gaggle of teen-girl hormones bunking in the fictional Eastland School.
These days, the once-progressive sitcom — it was the first series to depict a character with cerebral palsy, a landmark referenced in a hilariously cruel cameo in the Empire Stage show — looks cornier and faker than a Monsanto shipment; it's practically a parody of itself. In other words, it's easy pickings for a clever playwright eager to take the show's archetypes and stretch them like taffy.
If the TV series left things unsaid, there's nothing subtle about the characters' proscribed roles in The Lost Episode: The peroxide-blond Blair Warner (David Tracy) is transparently a slut; Natalie (Brooks Braselman) is the token tubby, with every joke referencing her girth; and Jo (Charles Logan) is a butch lesbian who looks more like a male greaser from an old Roger Corman set. Tootie (Shawn Burgess), the school's lone African-American, is a picture of youthful innocence and, perhaps to the original show's credit, the most difficult to skewer in a satire. The playwright himself takes on the plum role of Mrs. Garrett, his wig a towering, ginger bird's nest over gaudy makeup and endless pearls, a sense of trashy couture maintained by a trilling, hyperbolic vocal pattern.
As you would expect, he has a firm grasp of the show's tone, favoring overabundance to nuance, with most of the other actors following appropriately in lockstep. Braselman is terrific in two roles, conveying Natalie's brusqueness in a performance that conjures barking drill sergeants and Chris Farley's mall girl from Saturday Night Live. She doubles as the show's villain and headmaster, coloring this bald and lascivious worm with unpredictable gesticulations and hilarious tongue movements. As Jo, Logan is perhaps the most skilled performer at channeling the wide-eyed, simple emotionality of '80s sitcom acting, and Tracy offers a more-than-capable Blair, a far cry from his history of Shakespeare festivals. Despite a game effort, Burgess may be the show's weak link as Tootie, simply because, unlike the rest of the ensemble, you can practically see the cerebral gears grinding toward his decisions. Acting rather than being, he tends to underplay when everyone around him overplays, and subsequently, many of his lines fall flat.
The show's satire wouldn't work if the design elements didn't ring true, and Michael Lee Scott's scenic design effectively lacquers the cramped kitchen, living room, and bedroom with kitschy, dated details, like cheerleader pompoms above the bedroom door and cheesy LP covers pinned to the walls. Doug Michael Lucas' wigs are spot-on, especially Tootie's impermeable helmet hair; Blair's golden, hairsprayed locks; and Mrs. Garrett's aforementioned skyscraper, which should have its own ZIP code.
There is an original story among all of this folderol, one with the depth of a cocktail-napkin scribble: With the headmaster threatening to bulldoze the boarding school, the ladies are given two weeks to raise the required funds to keep their home alive; naturally, they turn the school into a brothel and adult superstore, offering 'round-the-clock service. "I give good head for business," Blair quips, inverting a platitude. But the narrative is irrelevant; nobody is going to see this show for an elegant three-act structure or an adherence to classic storytelling paradigms. People are going to finally see Jo and Blair puncture all those seasons' worth of sexual repression and jump each other's bones.
Everything in this show cycles back to "the old in-and-out," and to the show's credit, its crudeness never gets tiring: It's funny and subversive all the way to the end. Considering that the original TV series' example of edgy humor was its Asian character, Miko, saying, "What do I know about math — I use an abacus!," a little bit of dirty talk goes a long way.
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