Prop Theatre

“Warning!” says a sign in the lobby of the Prop Theatre. “The Betty Page Story contains scenes of smoking, bondage and women in their underwear. Some may find the smoking offensive.”

Behind the glib joke lies an apparent statement of purpose: the creators of The Betty Page Story want to remind the audience of changing mores–that puffing on cigarettes was once considered glamorous, for instance–by focusing on a former symbol of national decadence who is remembered today, if at all, as an icon of a quaintly innocent era.

Despite its title, this play doesn’t really try to tell the Betty Page story; it couldn’t if it wanted to. Only a few bare facts are known about the pinup girl who figured in a sensational congressional investigation in the mid-1950s. Born in 1923 in Tennessee, Page came to New York about 1948; there she was discovered by Robert Harrison (publisher of the infamous Confidential gossip magazine) and featured in the pages of such periodicals as Wink and Titter. In 1952 she began posing for Irving and Paula Klaw, who supplemented their thriving mail-order trade in old movie stills by shooting and selling their own cheesecake. Some of these pictures ventured into bondage imagery and simulated sadomasochism; in such circumstances, Page emerged as definite star material. Her sweet yet saucy persona conveyed the impression that she was neither really into these scenes nor aloof from them–she just wanted to have fun and wanted the reader to share it.

Among those who didn’t share it was Senator Estes Kefauver–coincidentally also from Tennessee–who zeroed in on Page’s bondage scenes as part of a 1955 Senate probe on juvenile delinquency. The Kefauver committee hearings effectively ended Page’s career; she disappeared from public view around 1960. Rumor has it she’s a born-again Christian living in a Florida trailer court.

But to director-producers Michael Flores and Scott Vehill, who conceived the framework from which the Betty Page Story ensemble improvised a script, the real-life details of Page’s life are as unimportant as they are uncertain. This two-act evening of sketches, monologues, and musical numbers seeks to make the Kefauver hearings an instructive example of government censorship. The shock at Page’s unorthodox poses is seen as comparable to the controversy surrounding Robert Mapplethorpe’s gay bondage photographs; and the Senate subcommittee hearings Kefauver chaired, in which Page and other Klaw models–and the Klaws themselves–are subjected to disorienting harangues, are meant to recall the Clarence Thomas hearings and the abuse Anita Hill received.

The Betty Page Story never lives up to its political purpose, however. In part this is because Page’s photos–tawdry and tacky despite her effervescent charisma–simply aren’t in the same league as serious work like Mapplethorpe’s; these were cheap exploitation shots that used sadomasochistic imagery to pander to certain tastes, not to reflect an artist’s deeply felt notions of sexuality and spirituality.

Still, the main problem is the play’s tendency to veer away from potentially provocative issues–its unwillingness to challenge its own assumptions or view its subject matter from another perspective. What Page’s photos suggest today is less Mapplethorpe’s work than the demeaning bondage pornography that some feminists have pointed to as symptomatic of the culture’s pervasive misogyny. Even if the Betty Page company reject the rhetoric of Andrea Dworkin and her allies, they are irresponsible not to address it. And the suggestion that Kefauver pursued his juvenile-delinquency probe for political purposes tells only part of the story; Kefauver was also a genuine crusader who defied right-wing intimidation to raise such issues as ghetto poverty and anticommunist hysteria. Ignoring such complexities robs the show of much potential resonance.

But if The Betty Page Story is simplistic, at least it’s consistent. The guiding aesthetic behind its look as well as its content is pure EC Comics–the comic-book line whose emphasis on expressionistically exaggerated horror and soft-core sex made it a scapegoat for the nation’s ills in an earlier phase of the Senate’s juvenile-delinquency hearings. This show feels like a holographic cross between Tales From the Crypt and its sister, Mad magazine, from eerily lit Redhunting rituals presided over by an overheated grand inquisitor to stilted simulations of Page’s famous poses and surrealistic parodies of such celebrities as Buck Henry, Steve Allen, John Kennedy, and Jackson Pollock. Rick Paul’s darkly garish set transforms Prop’s sprawling garage space into a seedy nightclub of the soul, in which the peekaboo motif Page’s images suggest is manifested in spray-painted slogans like “Teaserama” and “Varietease” and in the room’s keyhole-shaped archways and furniture. The costumes are vintage masterworks, especially Betty’s toeless black pumps with towering heels. And pianist Chris Walz’s Brubeckian accompaniment–augmented by recorded selections from the likes of Yma Sumac–complete the silly yet squalid 50s atmosphere in which the shows creators obviously revel.

Best of all, there’s Amy Osborn as Betty Page. Osborn may or may not be able to act–you can’t tell from this performance–but she’s almost a dead ringer for Page, with her black bangs and forthright, fun-loving gaze. More important, she embodies the spirit of innocent abandon Page projected in even the tawdriest surroundings. Page is a mystery this show fails to crack, but there’s no mystery about her special attributes as a model–the key to an appeal that has long outlived its possessor’s career.