Club Hellfire

By Leonard Melfi
Directed by Wally Strauss
Homegrown Theatre
2628 Broadway (961-0962)
Non-union Production (open run)
Review by John Michael Koroly

Leonard Melfi's new play takes a look at one night at an S&M/sex club from the perspective of the proprietor. Melfi has stated that he used to bring friends to these places in the '70s and has wanted to write a play on the subject ever since. Unfortunately, his aesthetic sensibilities seem to be stuck squarely in that same time period. His script fails to compel thoughts or feelings, either in its specific subject matter or on larger, symbolic levels.

The show begins with the club's owner, ``Slice,'' addressing the audience in an interminable exegesis about time and how it seems to rush by more rapidly as we get older. His wife, ``Sacrilege'' (yes, all have self-consciously literal names ... and it gets worse), arrives and greets him with his nightly pizza and a punch in the groin. It's unclear which he enjoys more. The pizza takes on great metaphoric significance throughout the evening.

One by one, the club's habitues arrive in a sort of kinky pageant of pan-sexual personality types. An exhibitionist anchorwoman, a voyeuristic businessman, a carnally omnivorous mayoral candidate, and other twisted souls each alternately indulge their fetishes and ruminate on them to Slice or to the philosophically minded bartender-in-residence.

There's some fascinating fodder here for the kind of gritty, street anthropology Martin Scorsese achieves in his examinations of an outlaw subculture (in his case, criminal rather than sexual). And Melfi could have written an affecting Gorkian portrait of lost, lonely people bound to each other by their mutual need to shield themselves from life's true pain by creating their own illusory psychodramas. But, instead, he goes for a condescending satire, hyperstylized and obvious in its language. Rather than dramatize these people's feelings, Melfi has them announce how they feel in odd, cartoonish declamations like, ``I can feel it in the air tonight here at Club Hellfire!'' And, when characters are given names like ``Delirious Druggie,'' ``Hooker,'' and ``Pastry Pussy,'' any chance of the audience's empathizing with them is truncated by the snide conceit.

Also, Melfi and Director Wally Strauss seem inexplicably demure in how much of the iniquity spoken about at length they are willing to visually share. The show contains no nudity, and very little in the way of explicit sadomasochistic behavior is acted out.

Chris Paulk made an earnest, if opaque, Slice. Stephen Wastell's sotto voce mannerisms made him an irritating bartender. Leigh Clark had a good sense of a line's irony as the hooker. And the rest of the cast never quite got a handle on Melfi's stylized verbiage. The one standout, though, was Ryan Carey as a gun-toting weirdo whose appetites are too warped even for this combination of the Vault and Plato's Retreat. Carey fairly blazed with the kind of aura of danger and amorality the script fails to achieve on its own.

Director Strauss blocked the action fluidly. And the production benefited from some solid and imaginative design work. Ricky Lizalde's costumes exuded a stylish, high-class decadence with lots of vinyl and a striking blue-suede Pierrot shirt for Slice. Julie Randall's set was dominated by a nightmarish mural depicting a spectrum of debaucheries. And Jim Spiers's lighting had a fittingly carnival-like feel.

Melfi can write clever, funny lines. When a patron shows up in a police outfit, Slice informs the audience that ``he really is a cop. Don't let the uniform fool you.'' But these don't make up for the lack of edge or gravitas in his text.

Box Score:
Writing 0
Directing 1
Acting 1
Set 1
Costumes 2
Lighting/Sound 1
Copyright 1996 John Michael Koroly
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