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James Cameron, Eat Your Heart Out

Icebergs figure prominently in Titanic, Christopher Durang's absurdly wild 1974 deconstruction of family life, but then so do hedgehogs, marmalade, and tortured slices of Wonder Bread. There's no Leonardo DiCaprio, but there is a Captain. He's the one sporting the black dildo on the white tennis headband -- a getup that makes him look rather like an obscene version of a unicorn. Movie fans, beware. You won't be taking in the glories of underwater photography in this version of the shipboard tale. Indeed, you won't be watching anything remotely resembling a polished piece of storytelling. Should you board the Titanic that's recently set sail at Florida Playwrights' Theatre (FPT) in Hollywood, you will, however, be treated to all the tasteless humor that a low-rent production can provide.

Which is no small thing, when the playwright is Durang. The show, presented by X-Ray Spex, the self-described "filthy younger brother of FPT," is of course capitalizing on the popularity of James Cameron's blockbuster movie. It's also cashing in on its own measured success, having recently moved into prime time after a healthy late-night run, the better to allure unsuspecting theatergoers who might actually think that the farce has some relation to the 1912 ship-sinking or any of the historically faithful docudramas about it. But Durang has no intention of revisiting the famous wreck to re-count the lifeboats. His characters -- a family of four, if you can call them that -- begin to sink long before they ever get on board.

But wait, you ask, where did this play come from? If you've never heard of Durang's Titanic, you're not alone. The seldom-produced work, written while the playwright attended the graduate program at Yale Drama School in the early '70s, was the second Durang drama (The Nature and Purpose of the Universe was the first) seen in New York City. In 1975 it was presented in a late-night format off-off-Broadway, where it was, in Durang's words, "a sort of cult success," in no small part, perhaps, because the cast included the playwright's buddy Sigourney Weaver. Soon thereafter it died the quick and painful death of an avant-garde work that goes to a commercial Broadway house. Doubtless there have been other productions before the current X-Ray Spex go-round, but Titanic is not the sort of play that endears itself to conventional theatergoers. Or anyone else uncomfortable with the notion that one character confesses to having once stored a hedgehog in her vagina. "My gynecologist runs the other way when he sees me coming," she says.

That would be Lidia (Amanda Danielle Becker), Captain's daughter, who in the course of Titanic sings a song about pudding; seduces Teddy (Jaki Levy), the son of first-class passengers Victoria (Ivonne M. Pelaez) and Richard (Paul Thomas); and transmutes -- at least in the minds of others -- into Annabella, the daughter of Victoria and Richard. That's right, folks: She becomes Teddy's sister. But if you believe Richard, Annabella isn't actually Victoria's daughter. In a fit of pique, he tells Victoria that the girl's mother is her good friend Harriet Lindsay. As for Victoria's giving birth, "It was all a trick," Richard says. "You only thought you gave birth. Harriet and I did it with mirrors." But that's not the end of mysteries as far as Lidia/ Annabella is concerned. At times Lidia is also Harriet. At other times, she is merely a girl who keeps mammals in unseemly places.

To call Titanic a comedy of mistaken identity would be to sell it short. (In fact, to call it anything more than a shameless vehicle for Durang's then-emerging sense of humor would be downright misleading.) Among other things it's a story that makes light of patricide, incest, and the so-called sanctity of marriage and family. For example, when asked for "bad words beginning with M," one character suggests, "mother." In another scene Richard, mistaking Teddy for a deck hand, seduces his own son, only to find that the boy won't return the money he took for the solicitation once his identity is revealed. Additional cheap laughs result by quoting (or misquoting) poets William Butler Yeats, William Blake, and the children's song "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" -- all in the same piece of dialogue.

As for the Wonder Bread, Victoria claims that Richard encountered a loaf of it, thinking he was siring son Teddy. "You made love to pieces of white bread, you stupid man," she snarls. "And not only that, but I made your toast out of it in the morning. Hah! I trust you'll be more careful next time I say something is just marmalade." Later, several slices show up impaled on Captain's dildo. And, if that weren't enough -- well, really, that is enough. Or it would be if Titanic had the emotional power of Durang's later works, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, for example. In that play his razor-sharp humor cuts through the pieties of church and family with a well-honed genius. And, as far as I can tell, no hedgehog.

Before we proceed to the four-legged creatures and their fates, however, here's some of the back-story of the writing of Titanic, which is even more compelling than the play itself. As the dramatist explains in the introduction of his collection Christopher Durang Explains It All for You, the story came about "from an exercise [Yale dean of playwriting] Howard Stein asked us to do: Write a scene on a train with a man smoking a cigar, and a woman asking him to stop." Durang turned the train into a boat, "and not much was said about cigars, though a lot was said of white bread, mirrors, and marmalade."

"I continued writing Titanic in Jules Feiffer's class," he goes on, "and cut out a section where the Titanic docked at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. Feiffer, who liked the play, said it was a prepubescent temper tantrum of children learning about their parents' 'doing it'... but I think the play is probably too messy to be thematically enclosed. It clearly has to do with children's anger at their parents (they kill them after all), with parents manipulating and seducing their children, and with a certain fear and disgust with sex.... In any case, even though the play is sort of a mess, I think it's a funny and evocative mess, and I'm happy to have it in print."

OK, but should we be happy to have it on stage? Few antics endear a small theater company more to this critic than its reaching beyond the usual suspects in choosing plays to produce. I'd much rather see an obscure Durang from time to time than yet another production of Sam Shepard's Buried Child or David Mamet's American Buffalo, which have become chestnuts of the small-theater circuit. That said, the show at FPT is uneven at best, although highly entertaining, at least for the first 40 minutes of the roughly 75-minute show. Once the iceberg hits the ship (or something to that effect -- I won't give it away here), the comedy begins to sink. That's partly Durang's fault. By this point he's emptied his bag of outrageous tricks, and his forthcoming resolutions of dramatic shenanigans are mere formalities.

At FPT, however, only one actor, Ivonne M. Pelaez as Victoria, is consistently up to the demands of sophisticated tastelessness. Dressed in a lace evening gown that evokes some of Joan Crawford's early sartorial choices, Pelaez brings an appealing Joan Fontaine-like vulnerability to Victoria's craziness. She's drunk on her own delusions. The rest of the cast have moments -- some of them intentional -- in which they hit their marks. Jaki Levy seems as dazed as his character Teddy. Amanda Danielle Becker, as Lidia, comes across rather too intensely in the small FPT black box. With all those mammals in her character's private parts, she could underplay the role to great effect. Her other characters suffer in that they're merely variations on Lidia. Andre Todd Bruni is understated as Higgins, the sailor, which is fine. John J. O'Connor's Captain, handsome as ever in that dildo, endows his character with a Boston-Irish accent, an interesting effect if not exactly a conscious acting choice. And, as the clueless Richard, Paul Thomas looks the part, even when his timing is off.

Director Bryan Sears' staging has all the charm of a hastily put-together backyard production, if backyard productions had strobe lights and sound systems. Sears and Paul Thomas manage to squeeze three discrete sets, all composed of tacky furniture, into FPT's tiny performance space. And last but not least, with its spirited and, uh, loud imitation of a luxury liner hitting an iceberg, X-Ray Spex Theatre lives up to the special-effects aspect of its name, even if Durang's Titanic is not quite shipshape.

Written by Christopher Durang. Directed by Bryan Sears. Starring Ivonne M. Pelaez, Paul Thomas, Jaki Levy, Amanda Danielle Becker, John J. O'Connor, and Andre Todd Bruni. Through May 10. Florida Playwrights' Theater, 1936 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 954-925-8123.

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Robin Dougherty

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