Bailiwick Repertory

Holly Hughes’s screwball comedy The Well of Horniness is full of salacious double entendres, any one of which–“eager beavers,” “bosom buddies,” “the bush league”–would win a male playwright an express ticket to sexist hell. But the play is a lesbian farce, and the result is a strangely inoffensive and even redemptive brand of humor. Writing in a form she calls “dyke noir,” Hughes has spawned a frothy 40s-style spoof that sticks so unflinchingly to its stereotypes–blond bimbos, hard-boiled detectives, and lethal hatcheck girls (all played by women)–that it undermines them, making merciless fun of cliches that long ago outlived their truth.

The title, a not so gentle takeoff on Radclyffe Hall’s classic lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, is the first of this romp’s many in-jokes. Staged as a radio broadcast from “WLEZ,” the play includes hilarious sound effects, cardboard cutouts, corny commercials, an intrusively officious narrator, and the occasional temper tantrum from a sensitive artiste.

Set in a town “where men are men and so are the women,” the shamelessly silly tale is the “saga of one woman’s sojourn in a cesspool.” Its embattled heroine is the ingenue Vicki, a “would-be word processor with a past she can’t outrun” (her profession only the first of a string of anachronisms). Vicki is engaged to dumb-as-a-boulder Rod, a salesman at the House of Shag ‘n’ Stuff (“where tomorrow’s carpets are here today”). What Rod doesn’t suspect is that Vicki is a member of the Tri Delta Tribades, the “sorority of sin.”

Rod’s sister Georgette, despite an impeccable pedigree (“unblemished except for a drop of Catholic blood on her mother’s side”), is also a Tribade who can never forget a, well, face–unless, as with the hatcheck girl Babs, it belongs to someone she’s thrown over (a big mistake as things turn out). When Rod, Vicki, and Georgette meet for dinner, Georgette homes in on Vicki like a heat-seeking missile: “Whatsamatter honey? You sitting in a puddle, or are you just glad to see me?”

Succumbing to the Tribade call, Vicki demurely drops a fork and dives under the table to service a cooing Georgette, whose legs, “two succulent rainbows leading to the same pot of gold,” are all aquiver.

Later a shot rings out and Georgette keels to the floor, dead. In panic Vicki screams and scrams. But, though she’s innocent, she’s still “suitable for framing” and soon the cops are on her trail.

One in particular. The “lady dick” Garnet McClit, a “seasoned Sapphic flatfoot,” doggedly pursues the falsely fingered Vicki (now suffering from hysterical amnesia). Garnet in turn falls for Vicki’s arch-nemesis Babs–after Babs conks her out. After a quiz-show trial, Vicki is sent up the river where, in a scene straight out of Women Behind Bars, she discovers not only the woes of horizontal stripes (“I’m all hips!”) but that a curvaceous blond can count on more than just a warm welcome from her sister cons.

Does Garnet rescue Vicki from the slammer before Babs can plug them both? And will Garnet give in to the “wake-up call to her crotch” that Vicki increasingly inspires? Well, let’s just say that a plot is a terrible thing to waste.

If you’re looking for slam-bang hilarity, The Well of Horniness is one pastiche that doesn’t always deliver the nonstop high jinks it thinks it does. And director L.M. Attea’s tentative approach to Bailiwick Repertory’s midwest premiere doesn’t help. The play’s pell-mell hysteria must hit-and-run with the contrivances; the jokes die on the spot if any daylight creeps between them.

On opening night Attea’s staging didn’t always achieve the velocity of good farce. Seemingly underrehearsed, it dragged where it should have percolated; the actors jumped on their lines, failing to hold for laughs or to override them as the pacing required. Wisecracks that cried out to be topped just bottomed out. Hughes’s skewed stereotypes too often felt only skin-deep.

But enough hilarity seeped through to give the audience a pretty terrific time; Attea knows how to work a house for maximum comic effect (this show is all over the theater like a busy usher). Slinking from one disguise to another, Pamela Webster turns scummy Babs into a tour de farce of deadpan venom. Alexandra Main as vaporous Vicki and Catherine Martineau as the dick who’s a dame are a couple made in vaudeville heaven. With stopwatch timing and brisk efficiency, Deanna Boyd is a stitch as the soundwoman who creates elaborately tailored sound effects (though, since this is a radio serial, the all-important synthesizer could be put to more use).

Molly Reynolds convincingly ranges from the patrician Georgette, with her deadly Joan Crawford do, to the mindlessly macho cop Al Dente. But in her trouser role Beverly Coscarelli as Rod unnecessarily spares the clunk the idiocy he deserves. Lumbered with a haltingly half-hearted delivery, Madelyn Spidle as the narrator barely holds things together, drying out lines she should slam home and projecting as if she were allergic to loud sounds.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.