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Sexual Politics

Imagine you're watching an early play by an obscure playwright -- say, a farce with a plot that's difficult to take seriously. Perhaps it contains a case of mistaken identity, at least one sharp-tongued female character, and some confusion about the proper nature of marriage. Say the conflicts are resolved -- after much confusion and running about -- by a series of unlikely revelations tempered by the redeeming power of love. If the play is set in ancient Syracuse, chances are the playwright is Shakespeare, whose Comedy of Errors -- had it been the only play the Bard left behind -- would hardly have propelled him to world-class status.

If the comedy is set in modern-day Thebes, Alabama, however, and the farce revolves around a strait-laced socialite reeling from the realization that her only offspring, a daughter named Lee-Ila La Belle, is engaged to marry another woman, the play would be Comedy of Eros. Playwright Paul Firestone, a onetime English professor at Brandeis University, may not be Shakespeare. But the drubbing he's gotten from theater critics at two of South Florida's major daily papers about this play, now being given its world premiere at the Caldwell Theatre Company, is ill-deserved. What's more, it's downright disrespectful to the tradition of farce, the talents of the actors and the director involved, and the ability of audiences to tell the difference between serious social commentary and lighthearted fluff.

Set almost entirely in the living room of the magnolia-bedecked home of Mrs. Lulubeth La Belle, Comedy of Eros tells the story of how one misguided mother sets a snowballing plot into action when she appeals to the state attorney general, her old friend William Jefferson Davis Powers, to get him to fire the woman her daughter wants to marry. Joanna Cohen, a lawyer in Powers' office, is not easy to get rid of. She may be an outsider, the token Jew in a small Southern town, but she knows her rights, after all. And when Powers tries to force Joanna to resign, he also makes the mistake of groping her inappropriately, thereby opening the door to sexual harassment charges. By the end of the day, Powers also wants to destroy Joanna. Together with Lulubeth he concocts a plot to have Lulubeth "accidentally" shoot her.

The idea is that Lulubeth will "mistake" Cohen -- who's living in her house with her daughter Lee-Ila -- for a peeping Tom who has been spotted lately in the neighborhood. As is traditional with this sort of screwball comedy, the more-or-less well laid plans are thrown into disarray by the concerns of two other characters. One is Fefferkookenman, the local police officer whose arrival at the scene of the would-be crime complicates matters. The other is William Powers, Jr., the redneck son of the attorney general. He is a college football player who falls desperately in love with Lee-Ila, whom he meets when he takes his pregnant girlfriend to the clinic where Lee-Ila works.

Now, you don't have to be a theater critic to realize that Firestone is capitalizing on the current political troubles of William Jefferson Clinton when he utilizes a character who can't keep his hands off the women who traipse through his office. Particularly when the dialogue finds this character answering a question about his truthfulness with the assertion that it "depends what your definition of a lie is." Actor Robert Stoeckle bears a passing resemblance to the middle-aged Bill Clinton, and Christopher Baker, as William Powers, Jr., is the sort of pudgy, hormone-driven hound dog the President must have been in his own skirt-chasing salad days. Subtle the play is not.

These touches are mere window-dressing, however. If the sole purpose of Comedy of Eros were to satirize the Clinton presidency, it would have fallen decidedly flat. No playwright -- not even the mature Shakespeare or even, say, a comic genius along the lines of Larry Gelbart -- could compete with the real-life political sideshow now playing in Washington. And these particular touches will undoubtedly date the play. What Firestone has created, however, is something far less contrived and certainly less titillating than a comedy about gay marriage, political missteps, and sexual harassment seems on the surface. "It's goofy," said my friend Andrea, who giggled through a great deal of the play. And she's right. The work is like a comic collaboration between TV impresario Sid Caesar and TV nitwit Gomer Pyle.

Comedy of Eros may not be brilliant. Indeed, it exists in a universe where Fefferkookenman's name as well as his malapropisms (he wonders if the lesbians are "ABCD") are fodder for humor. But it does have its own brand of charm. Moreover, it's a well-made play, better constructed than many works that take on more serious subjects. Its characters are well defined, and they're consistently portrayed by the Caldwell cast, particularly Nicole Orth-Pallavicini as Lulubeth and Steve Wilson as the endearingly dense policeman, who acts out a pantomime that describes the syllables of his name.

The comedy's sensibility is well served -- at times expertly communicated -- by Michael Hall's direction, which is neither slapstick nor realistic, but might be described as straddling both styles. Most remarkably, given the thinness of the subject matter, Hall deftly steers his actors with a pacing that builds to a hilarious climax right on cue. I can't entirely explain why a scene in which William Jr. appears dressed only in his Calvin Kleins and a yellow T-shirt wrapped across his face is so funny, but it certainly has as much to do with Hall's sense of timing as with the comic potential of the situation. The same goes for some of the jokes, which would evoke only groans if they didn't seem like lines that might actually come out of these people's mouths.

The play may not be everyone's proverbial cup of tea -- both daily critics found it tasteless -- but it's not fair to attack it, as they did, for being lowbrow drama. Like hundreds of characters in farces before them, Lee-Ila and Joanna are nearly upstaged by the shenanigans going on around them. The Flintstones-esque Halloween costumes they plan to wear for the wedding reappear draped over other characters who are trying to make unseen exits. (Yeah, right.) The conflict caused by the women's engagement is pushed aside by subplots involving the agendas of their self-centered friends and family. (Lulubeth is less appalled by the marriage, it seems, than by the prospect of a wedding that will take place in a local synagogue, the only religious institution to provide parking as well as approval for same-sex unions.) Despite all this nonsense, the comedy delivers the happy, morally centered, and satisfying conclusion that the formula dictates.

Firestone's play is one of two world premieres the Caldwell is presenting this season, along with the Florida premiere of Paula Vogel's 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive. Comedy of Eros may strike some as oddly out of place, sandwiched between the Vogel work and The World Goes 'Round, the respectable, well-pedigreed revue of Kander and Ebb works that opened the Caldwell's season. It may not be the sort of play that fans rooting for a roster of "important" and provocative theater works in South Florida are hoping for. Paul Firestone may not be a playwright for the ages. But to imply that the play isn't worthy of a production is to sell short everyone who cares about theater.

Comedy of Eros.
Written by Paul Firestone. Directed by Michael Hall. Starring Tamara Guffey, Erin Neill, Nicole Orth-Pallavicini, Robert Stoeckle, Christopher Baker, and Steve Wilson. Through February 14. Caldwell Theatre Company, 7873 N. Federal Hwy., Boca Raton, 561-241-7432 or toll-free 930-6400.

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Robin Dougherty

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