Down With the Ship

The game Live Theater Workshop cast can't quite salvage this sinking production

The captain of the Titanic strides out in his underwear, a dildo strapped to his forehead skewering a thin slice of white bread. This, my fellow passengers, is the high-water mark of Christopher Durang's Titanic.

But just as the ocean liner's maiden voyage was cut short by the collision with an iceberg, Durang's play stays afloat for only 20 of its 60 minutes. After the dildo scene, Durang's reckless absurdism has nowhere to go except in circles, sucked into the whirlpool of the author's forceful but often unpredictable imagination. By the end of the show, even a scene involving a sea gull stuffed up a woman's vagina seems like déjà-vu.

Titanic first opened in 1976, not long after Durang graduated from college, and starred a young Sigourney Weaver as the girl with the zoological love canal. Right now, the play is showing in Live Theatre Workshop's late-night Etcetera series. Titanic is one of the earliest of Durang's many attacks on the idealized American family (even though the father here is British); it's not just the ship that's doomed. Victoria (Dana Armstrong) and Richard (Jeremy Thompson) are the mannequin-like parents of young Teddy (Christopher Johnson), whom they dress like a pre-adolescent even though he's pushing 20. They dine aboard the Titanic, oh-so-politely hating each other for reasons that have to do with infidelity, incest and sex with sliced bread.

Soon we encounter Lydia (Holli Henderson), who may be the captain's daughter; she reveals that she keeps hamsters in her vagina and proceeds to feed them by sitting on a few lettuce leaves. Later, Lydia, hamsters and all, introduces Teddy to sex as well as the concept of vagina dentata. Her putative father, the captain (Matt Walley), falls prey to Victoria's wiles, while Richard rapes a sturdy young sailor (Rick Windon).

This play is obviously not under consideration for Live Theatre Workshop's Sunday-afternoon family series.

Durang has described Titanic as his "craziest and most sexually obsessive play," and that's saying something for the author of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, Beyond Therapy, Baby With the Bathwater and The Marriage of Bette and Boo, most of which have been produced here over the past 10 or 15 years.

Director Sybille Bruun has aptly characterized Titanic as "a very rude play," and fortunately, she and her cast don't try to make it more presentable for company. They revel in its sex-besotted surrealism, even while bringing to the script a professionalism that elevates it beyond dirty-minded college farce. Armstrong, Thompson and especially Walley tend to underplay their roles, their deadpan participation in Durang's farcical provocations calling to mind Morticia in The Adddams Family. This leaves Henderson and Johnson free to inject extra physical and vocal exuberance into the proceedings, while poor Windon stands around looking justifiably nervous and victimized.

In Titanic, Durang gets an early start on his later themes, especially bad parenting and confused sexual identity. There's even a light slap at Catholicism, which would later come in for much heavier criticism. And, typically, Durang romps through a district intentionally segregated from reality; the Titanic sailed and sank in 1912, but these characters chat about movies, television and Wonder Bread.

The outrageous, offensive first 20 minutes of the play are hilarious, but then Durang treads water for the remainder of the hour. Some later bits are remarkably pertinent today, notably a scene involving gay weddings, but by then, the script has lost much of its antic force. Or Arctic farce.

Still, the cast comes as close as possible to pulling it off, and they do this with only minimal support from the set, prop and costume departments: a couple of funny hats and hairdos, a foppish cravat, a table and a few chairs, an inflatable doll, two limp fuzzy things meant to be hamsters, a dildo, a slice of bread. If only Durang had put this degree of economy and inspiration into the rest of his script.

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