Private Parts

31. January, 2014 Theater No comments

I should have known this play was trouble from the start. The scene looked inviting enough when I walked into the Phoenix Theatre to see Pardon My Invasion. Fred Sharkey’s set is a nicely detailed living room or home study with a desk with a typewriter and a bottle of booze, with more reinforcements above the fireplace. But as soon as the play begins to the strains of the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” (appropriately licensed, I’m sure), we see that the woman sitting at the typewriter wears a fedora down over her eyes while she bangs out her manuscript. This is a very bad sign. She’s writing a lurid potboiler of a detective novel in a ludicrously overblown style that would put Mickey Spillane to shame (and Mickey Spillane has no shame).

Marissa Keltie and Juliet Tanner in Pardon My Invasion. Photo by Colin Hussey.

Marissa Keltie and Juliet Tanner in Pardon My Invasion. Photo by Colin Hussey.

Mind you, the ridiculousness of Rita’s prose style is deliberate, because Joy Cutler’s play is a comedy. A very, very broad comedy with a serious undercurrent that coexists awkwardly with the parts that are supposed to be funny. But coexisting awkwardly is basically what the play’s all about. Unable to deal with the things he’s had to do in the Iraq War, a US soldier takes refuge inside the body of a 13-year-old girl in some seemingly suburban town Stateside. How he got there isn’t explored or important; he just needed to get away, and that’s where he wound up, possessing her as if he were a demon or something. The girl’s mom, this pulp fiction writer, has to get used to this guy holding her daughter hostage and try to figure out how to get him to go away.

Directed and produced by Joe Weatherby under his own Brisk Weather Productions, this West Coast premiere of Pardon, which debuted in Cutler’s home turf of Philadelphia in 2011, is a shaky staging of a deeply problematic and often baffling play. Still, there are some bright spots: Marissa Keltie plays hapless young Penny and the haunted soldier who’s haunting her, Private Mac Jack. (Hey, I didn’t name him.) Keltie’s charmingly squirmy in pubescent awkwardness and compelling as the soldier, who quickly goes from well-trained politeness to brutish disregard for everyone around him. He has unresolved issues to deal with that make him such a jerk, of course, and that’s what a lot of the play is about—getting him to face that stuff so that we can finally get him out of our hair.

Marie Shell and Sondra Putnam in Pardon My Invasion. Photo by Colin Hussey.

Marie Shell and Sondra Putnam in Pardon My Invasion. Photo by Colin Hussey.

Mac isn’t the only person mysteriously popping up in this house, either. Wacky characters start coming out of the woodwork, literally. Hidden panels in the walls open up to unleash the foul-mouthed drill sergeant that haunts the soldier (an increasingly canine John Flanagan, barking and sniffing around) and Honey Babe, the blowsy sex bomb from Rita’s books (Marie Shell in an egregiously revealing outfit by Prem Lathi). I don’t know what the heck she does in the books aside from come on to men, but here she’s first seen belting “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” A lounge singer, maybe? Even putting that much thought into what things are supposed to mean feels like overthinking it.

In any case, these aren’t just figments of the imagination of the only person who might know who they are or what they might mean. No, everybody can see them, and they’re “really” there, at least as much as anything else in the story is real. Also sniffing around are Penny’s horny study buddy (Randy J. Blair) and a sympathetically flummoxed police officer (Juliet Tanner). “Oh, this is amazing material,” Rita gushes when everybody, real or imagined, starts interacting all at once. No, it’s really, really not.  That said, the one moment that made me laugh in the whole comedy was when Rita says of Sarge, “I don’t know where he came from! He’s not one of my characters,” and Private Jack says glumly, “No, he’s one of mine.”

 Marissa Keltie and John Flanagan in Pardon My Invasion. Photo by Colin Hussey.

Marissa Keltie and John Flanagan in Pardon My Invasion. Photo by Colin Hussey.

The horrors of war have been explored in more depth in other, more serious plays, so it’s curious that the strongest parts of Cutler’s script are the moments when Mac really has to talk through what happened in Iraq and what he did. Played strongly by Keltie, it’s  a sobering taste of reality uncomfortably placed amid the desperately broad and ill-conceived “funny” bits.

Here are some things that are played entirely for comedy in this play:

The adult male soldier who’s possessed the body of a 13-year-old girl fondles her breasts and inside her pants, only to discover it doesn’t feel the way he always thought it did when he touches her that way.

The one-note sex object from Rita’s novel advises Rita (a floundering Sondra Putnam) to seduce her own 13-year-old child—or rather the man living inside her own 13-year-old child—because, well, I don’t know if she ever got that far. Maybe it’ll help get rid of him somehow. Anyway, Rita totally gets on board with this plan of seducing her underage daughter and only doesn’t get around to it because she’d interrupted.

I’d go on, but that’s too much already. It would be one thing if these things and their ramifications were actually explored, but as just a bit of the incorrigible hijinks going on in this too-too-haunted house, it makes it less of a question of how to banish the rowdy spirits than how soon you can get the hell out of there yourself.

Pardon My Invasion
Through February 8
Brisk Weather Productions
Phoenix Theatre
414 Mason Street
San Francisco, CA

Show #6 of 2014, attended January 23.


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