Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Writer's Block

September 02, 2009

Matt Rimmer and Jeremy Glazer in Block Nine
Photo: Joel Daavid/Elephant Theater 2009

Nothing says sexy like having a pistol crammed down the front of your pants by somebody else. Or at least that seems to be part of the thinking behind Block Nine the world premiere production from the Elephant Theater Company currently onstage at the Lillian Theater in Hollywood. To be fair, I think the gun stuffing maneuver in Tom Stanczyk’s water-logged script is supposed to say something about the link between aggression and sex roles, but to be honest when the cramming finally arrives in the climactic scene of the play, it feels as odd as it sounds. The conceit behind Block Nine is a sizable one. It’s a takeoff on 1930s-style gangster films and all the cinematic tropes of the genre. The twist is that the play is performed by two separate casts – one all male and the other all female each of which provides the action with its own homoerotic slant. I took in the “Fellas” version of the play last weekend and despite an abundance of well-manicured chest musculature, was decidedly disappointed.

As the rather complicated action unfolds, an undercover cop goes to jail to extract important but seemingly irrelevant information from a cellmate and eventually lands in the hands of a crime boss after being seduced by both characters in a manner that involves a fair amount of aggression. All of this is distressing to the cop's “partner” left at home who is bewildered by his cop/lover's seeming desire to be kissed and/or suggestively gyrated against by the criminal element. All of this probably sounds a little confusing because it is. The script is crammed with superfluous characters and ideas that are often more distracting than elucidating from two talking corpses to a wannabe mobster posing as a barber. A body lies on a couch beginning in scene 2 and remains ever present until well into Act II. And while the crime boss may not mind the rotting corpse smell in his office, the lack of the author's certainty about what to do with it begins to stink to the audience. Meanwhile, many important plot details are glossed over or alluded to in a way that is so obtuse as to be frustrating. None of this is helped by a decided tone problem. Block Nine wants to be a hard-boiled gangster story, a sly gay sex farce, and a knowing examination of power in same sex dynamics. It does none of these particularly well.

Perhaps the biggest frustration, though, was that the play is never quite as clever as it seems it should be. For example, this is not a single play enacted by two different casts, as much as two versions of the same play. In the “Fellas” version, all of the characters are, in fact male. There is no drag, camp, or gender-bending to the performance, and the only role that would traditionally have been a female in such a story, the gun moll, was instead cast as an effeminate man. Minus the references to gay desire and a few kisses, this is pretty much what you’d expect from a bad 30s gangster movie. Only a little less interesting. There are a few comic self-aware flashes here and there, but they are so few and far between, that when they do arrive, they can seem bewildering. Still, the eager and attractive cast makes the best of it with commitment to the proceedings. It's too bad there's so much for them to chew over in such a disorganized script.


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