Nothing in Empire Stage's production of Sex and Violence is as provocative or outlandish as the image on the playbill: a naked man in fishnets and stilettos, blood streaking down his chest, a chain saw covering his presumed member.
Ronnie Larsen's play, which is enjoying its world premiere at the Fort Lauderdale cult theater, is more about building tension than offering cheap and fast titillation. Contrary to its title, there is no sex presented onstage, and the violence is limited to one quiet throat-slitting and a splatter-fest climax. In the play's most authentic scene — a backhanded compliment to the playwright, given that no dialogue is exchanged — a man walks onstage naked as the day he was born, sits at his laptop, gets up, walks to the bathroom, takes an eternally long pee, returns in a bathrobe, and leaves again for a bowl of cereal. The nudity in Larsen's play is natural, as aesthetically inoffensive as the penis on the statue of David. This is a play that feels closer to the art house than the grind house.
The fact that Empire Stage chose to market the show with an image of a chain-saw-wielding cross-dresser is the first hint that this production will take a different tone from what the playwright intended. In an internal note posted by Larsen on his website, he asserts that Sex and Violence should be played straight: There is, he says, "not an ounce of camp in this play." The awkward stylistic jumble has more than a dollop of camp, most of it owing to Kitt Marsh's performance as a psychopathic housewife. The black comedies of the Coen brothers were an influence on Larsen, but director Jeff Holmes reaches more for John Waters-like trans-sleaze.
Sex and Violence is inspired by the true story of a low-rent New York transsexual who murdered her drug-dealing, slugabed husband in 1979 and hid his corpse in her closet for 15 years. Act one splits the stage time between that story (played by Keith Dougherty and Angel Perez) and the modern-day tale of Jack (David R. Gordon, Empire Stage's cofounder), a struggling young author. Two years after a bestseller, Jack has been unable to present a follow-up proposal, despite a $2.5 million advance from his increasingly unhinged publishers, Roy and Linda (Tom Falborn and Kitt Marsh). Jack finally finds inspiration in the sordid story of the 1979 murder, pitching his idea to his homophobic publishers with progressive enthusiasm: It's not about homosexuality, he says; it's about evolution. Gender roles are a thing of the past. Everybody's gay these days. The story is a metaphor for the entire country — no, the entire world.
His offer rejected, Jack pursues the book anyway, eventually forming a bond with his primary source, Sezette (Mario Betto), a buxom transsexual who worked, and continues to work, in the same seedy Harlem drag bar as his subject. One thing leads to another, and most of the characters wind up cadavers.
Empire Stage's production is brazenly flawed in a number of small but important ways. For one, there is seemingly no effort to age Betto's drag-show entertainer, who would presumably be in her 60s by the time she lures Jack into the sack in present day. Similarly, Marsh is an actress later in her years, so when her villainous mastermind — played like Liza Minnelli as a femme fatale — implores her husband to kill himself before she turns 50, it's a moment of uncomfortable eyebrow-raising. Owing undoubtedly to the production's meager budget, the utilitarian set design of discarded odds and ends from a furniture auction's backroom makes no distinction between the ratty drag club and the millionaire publishers' home.
The scenes in Sex and Violence, particularly in act one, are so short that they end before finding their rhythm, and Larsen's dialogue never captures an authentic ring. But in a few well-executed moments — Sezette's backstory of her conversion to womanhood, Jack's idealistic pitch for a postgender future, Jack and Sezette's uncomfortable dinner dalliance — the seeds of an intelligent thriller that does play it straight become evident, even when the characters don't.
Still, this production maintains a kind of raggedy charm even as it spirals into B-movie hysteria. With a story as sensational as this one, the production's manifold imperfections don't have the damaging impact they would in, say, a production of Ibsen or Strindberg. But ultimately, it's uncertain whether we're laughing at or with the play, and the dubious honor of being "so bad it's good" was never Larsen's intention.