Feral Theatre

at Live Bait Theater


Horizons Productions

at Cafe Voltaire

“He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a horse’s health, a boy’s love, or a whore’s oath,” writes Shakespeare in King Lear. Yet prostitution is as often as not a matter of trust–that a transaction will be fulfilled, and that neither partner in it will betray the other. Or kill him. These two plays about male prostitutes and their male customers show that the power plays in the world of gay hustling are more likely to endanger the hustler than his client. And if the good qualities of each show could be pulled together in one production, the result would be dynamite theater. Forty-Deuce is a fine, funny, frightening play given a mostly mediocre production by the Feral Theatre, while In Apartment 3D is a slick but unconvincing script that storms to life on the strength of a vividly scary lead performance.

Seen in 1981 in an off-Broadway production starring Kevin Bacon and Orson Bean and first presented in Chicago several years ago at the Theatre Building under Harriet Spizziri’s direction, Alan Bowne’s Forty-Deuce is a rich, raw satire on corporate capitalism from the viewpoint of the hustlers’ underworld. Suggesting a cross between David Mamet’s American Buffalo, Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End, and William Burroughs’s The Wild Boys, Forty-Deuce nonetheless has the fierce feel of having been lived by its author before it was written; whether or not Bowne ever worked the 42nd Street meat market, he sure knew its style and its sound. (Bowne later wrote the AIDS allegory Beirut, before dying of AIDS himself in 1987.)

Set in an Eighth Avenue apartment used as a trick pad by a group of boys working for an unseen, all-powerful pimp named Mike, the play follows the dealing and double-dealing of Ricky, a born loser deluded into thinking he can move from working stiff to top dog. Not too bright even when he’s thinking clearly, and currently disoriented after a night of “holin’ shit” obtained from a careless pusher named Blow, Ricky is desperate to escape the sexual secretarial pool to which he’s confined by Mike’s on-scene middle manager, Augie. Ricky recruits a 12-year-old runaway at the nearby Greyhound station, intending to rent the “fetus” to a kinky chicken hawk named Roper (a special client of Mike’s, which isn’t likely to make Mike happy) and then use Roper’s money to fund a big-time coke deal arranged with some “niggers” from Harlem. (Slurs like “nigger,” “kike,” “spic,” “greaser,” “fag,” and “bitch,” as well as the all-purpose “testicle,” permeate the dialogue; they’re spoken not with hateful aggression but with the matter-of-fact bigotry of businessmen dealing in a multicultural marketplace. The men also routinely refer to each other as “she,” though only one of them is effeminate–or even primarily homosexual.)

As the situation comes to a crisis–the 12-year-old turns up dead of an overdose–Ricky’s schemes get even crazier, until he finds himself caught in the trap of his own deficit spending. Like Robert Stempel, who this week was forced out as General Motors’ chairman, Ricky finds that when you play for big stakes you risk failing in a big way–but at General Motors they don’t tear your lips off or grind glass in your eyes. At least I don’t think so. Yet Bowne’s point is that in the consumer-service biz all men are whores, and all whores are only as good as their current cash flow.

Director Glenn F. Haines has focused on defining individual characterizations, and all the actors here are believable enough, if not compelling–no one ever embarrasses himself by trying to come off tougher or funnier than he can handle. But Haines’s slice-of-life staging neglects the play’s dramatic structure–its abrupt shifts in tension and tone, its brisk movement from humor to horror and back. Just because the boys’ lives are aimless doesn’t mean the play has to be. Mark Talley is especially weak as Ricky, lacking the right power and drive; and the actors playing Ricky’s fellow hustlers miss the competitive comic rhythms in such quintessentially New York exchanges as the boys’ arguments over where to get carry-out coffee (the bodega or the Greeks) or what’s the best subway route from midtown to Harlem.

But though this production is generally sluggish, one scene stands apart: when Ricky and his partner/nemesis Blow (Brian Jude Leahy) try to turn on Roper with sex talk and dusted dope to prepare him for his encounter with the dead boy on the bed, hoping to make Roper think he killed the kid so they can blackmail him. Tall, lanky Kent Reed is marvelous as Roper, like a tethered lizard that’s wandered free of its leash, and his self-loathing hauteur offers Talley and Blow a demanding target for their underhanded intentions. As they try every trick to bring him around, the scene takes on a spooky, hypnotic sexuality and a malevolent irony absent elsewhere. It’s the saving scene in an otherwise off-the-mark production–though Bowne’s gutsy gutter poetry and scathing social commentary merit attention even when weakly presented.

Things might have been very different if Ricky had been played by Doug Friedman, whose mercurial performance makes Horizon Productions’ In Apartment 3D always interesting and occasionally spine tingling. Paul Prince’s one-act thriller was developed last year in a writing workshop led by Edward Albee at the University of Houston; it recalls the menacing encounter in Albee’s early Zoo Story (as well as some of Pinter’s work from the same era), and for a student effort it’s an effective exercise in suspenseful structure. But it lacks Forty-Deuce’s feeling that its author has experienced it, and the very slickness of its construction seems jarringly inappropriate to the grim subject matter.

A boy (Friedman) is brought to an isolated apartment by a man (the very able and frequently moving John Berczeller) for sexual fun and games; but the games get less fun as they turn from sexual to psychological. The customer turns the tables on the boy by telling him he’s a prisoner; alternately threatening and pleading, he tries to get the boy to promise to stay with him–and brandishes a gun when the youth tries to get away. The man’s wish is obsessively simple: don’t leave me, he begs. And he implies he’ll go to violent lengths to prevent the boy from leaving.

Chicago audiences are perhaps more apt than others to react to the play from a painful personal perspective: the situation horribly recalls the Jeff Dahmer case, for Dahmer’s motive in killing and cooking his victims was indeed to keep them from leaving. (The presence of an icebox in the corner of the studio-apartment set is decidedly disturbing.) No one who knew any of the youths murdered by Dahmer will be able to ignore the real-life parallel–nor should we, for those resemblances are what give this play some meaning. But the Dahmer case raises the stakes for the play beyond its ability to meet them: the chess-game strategies that guide the man’s and boy’s interactions are so well crafted that they seem glib and artificial, and the slick craftsmanship belies the story’s emotional chaos.

Director James M. Schneider, like Prince a former student of Albee’s and the guiding force behind the play’s Chicago premiere, has staged a tensely charged production that disguises most of the script’s shortcomings. The rapid-fire rhythms of the antagonists’ repartee keep the play moving excitingly and for the most part unpredictably. Berczeller’s oddball amiability seems right for his dangerously lonely character; and the edgily spontaneous Friedman digs deep to mine the sudden, shocked emotional vulnerability of a kid who’s always lived by his wily wits but suddenly finds them inadequate to a deadly challenge.