Shallow Be Thy Name

Young men, early Mamet: Amusing, immature — and yes, perverse

click to enlarge HEY LADIES! Bernie Litko, left, and Danny - Shapiro represent a certain phase in male - development. - MARK A. MARPLE
HEY LADIES! Bernie Litko, left, and Danny Shapiro represent a certain phase in male development.

Sexual Perversity in Chicago is one of David Mamet's earliest plays, and, amusing as it is, it lacks the depth of vision to be found in later works like Glengarry Glen Ross, Oleanna and Speed-the-Plow. Mamet's subject in Perversity is sex — not the kinky sort that the title might conjure up, but sex as understood by two mentally young men for whom women are mysterious, often maddening beings with little human value beyond their willingness to relieve a man's carnal tensions. Any man who's ever been 16 will recognize in Danny Shapiro and Bernie Litko a certain phase in male development, when sexual urges are strong and the beings who can satisfy them are distressingly aloof. And any man who's ever been 30 will know what's lacking from Perversity: respect for women as creatures with minds of their own, souls seeking meaning, roles beyond sex toy. Fortunately, Mamet was a brilliant maker of dialogue even in his early plays, so you can enjoy Perversity's language even while lamenting its shallowness. But if you're not aware of the later plays with their scathing exposure of human failings, don't expect Perversity to inform you of Mamet's importance. This is an immature work, both in form and in content. It's not helped very much by Bayshore Productions' version now playing at the ¡Viva La Frida! Café y Galeria. On a crudely unattractive set, consisting of little more than a dusty-looking black stage and a large box wrapped in black cloth, four actors fail to convince us that any of Mamet's characters change or evolve from first scene to last. In one case, it doesn't matter: Anthony Casale is so funny as arch-male-chauvinist Bernie Litko, we would be disappointed to find him actually learning anything from the chaos he generates. And I suppose an argument could be made (though I'm not sure that I buy it) that Mamet has written the part of Joan Webber with so little variation of temperament, it would be wrong for Regina Smith to add colors where the playwright left blanks. But no such case can be made about the part of Danny Shapiro, played with an out-of-focus air of innocence by the unconvincing John Krevens. Danny's a key player in Mamet's parable, a young man who at least attempts a good relationship with a woman, and whose failure should reveal the fatal defect of the Hustler philosophy. But Krevens never finds a thinkable through-line for his character, and confusingly wears the same look of wide-eyed innocence whether he's listening to one of his friend Bernie's sexual postmortems or castigating his lover, Deborah, for not being ... well, it's not clear. Finally, Aisha Duran is charming enough as Deborah, but fails to persuade us that her relationship with Danny affects her in the least, for better or worse. "Times change and people change with them," said someone — I think it was Brecht — but in this production of Perversity, times change and no one notices. True, Mamet's script typically offers little in the way of stage directions, but that just means that the director — in this case Mark A. Marple — has more work to do in making the dramatic action intelligible. Marple's great on some individual scenes, but he leaves the big picture murky.

There's little in the way of plot in Sexual Perversity; mostly there are daringly brief scenes in which sex is talked about, remembered, indulged in or contemplated. Bernie Litko and Danny Shapiro, both twentysomething, are friends. Bernie's life is a series of sexual encounters, many of which he recalls for the entertainment of his staunch defender Danny. One day Danny meets Deborah Soloman, a commercial artist who rooms with a kindergarten teacher, Joan Webber. Danny and Deborah sleep together several times, and finally Deborah moves into Danny's apartment. But the two quickly become antagonists, and soon Danny's living alone again. Bernie and Joan don't mind: they've been attacking their friends' relationship — jealously? — from the beginning. When we last see Bernie and Danny, they're out on the beach ogling women and calling them prickteasers and bitches.

Even though I said there's no perversity of the literal sort in Mamet's script, there is something distinctly perverse about Bernie's assertions that "the way to get laid is to treat 'em like shit." Bernie doesn't just philosophize on the subject: he treats Joan accordingly (and doesn't get laid), recalls throwing a clock radio at a different, masochistic sex partner, and, finding Danny kicking a recalcitrant elevator door, warns "Don't go looking for affection from inanimate objects." But what's finally most perverse about Sexual Perversity isn't Bernie's attitudes toward women; it's how underwritten the women's parts are in a play ostensibly about heterosexual relationships. The two women in this script lack a vivid existence, a sense of real independence, of genuine gravity. It's understandable that females don't have much reality in Danny and Bernie's minds; but we expect them to have some weight for the playwright. The odd insignificance of Deborah and Joan is perhaps the greatest flaw in a script — and a production — that's notably imperfect.

Anyway, this is early stuff. If you're a fan, you're aware of the superiority of the later work. And if you're not ... well, here's a fact: David Mamet is one of the greatest living American playwrights.

Though you'd never guess it from the evidence of Sexual Perversity in Chicago.

Rally for Ballet. It's been more than 10 years since Tampa has been home to a major ballet company. But now that's finally going to change: the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center has invited West Palm Beach's Ballet Florida to become its resident company (part of the time in Tampa, part in West Palm and on tour). The troupe plans on introducing itself to local audiences with a free performance (already sold out at the time of this writing) on Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. Then the company will be back on April 16 and 17 with Dracula, choreographed by Ben Stevenson.

So what exactly does it mean that Ballet Florida will be a resident company? According to Assistant to the Artistic Director George Cripps, it could eventually signify five concerts a year, just as the company offers in West Palm. But TBPAC president Judith Lisi says she intends to build the residency more carefully: "Obviously it's always nice to have a place where you want to get to … ," says Lisi. "I just want to make sure that we do it in a way that our audiences here get to know this company, get to really respond to their work in a positive way, and then the more our community wants to support it, the more performances we can do. But I think you have to build one step at a time."

Ballet Florida started as a dance school in 1973 and became a professional company in 1986. It presents both modern and traditional ballet; at the core of its repertoire are works by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Alvin Ailey, Peter Martins, David Parsons and Glen Tetley. As for the ballets being offered on Oct. 21 in Tampa, the first is "Second Before the Ground," choreographed by Trey McIntyre and set to African compositions, and "Four Last Songs," choreographed by Stevenson and set to music by Richard Strauss. The first is folk-inspired and features fleeting footwork and gravity-defying lifts; the latter is set amid a gently moving silk stage.

For information on Ballet Florida, call 813-229-STAR.

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