L.A. TOOL & DIE: LIVE! – Celebration Theatre – Los Angeles Theater Review

by Tony Frankel on August 18, 2010

in Theater-Los Angeles

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NUDIE PARODY GOES LIMP

You should know how seriously I take theatre: when I review a production of Hamlet, I study Hamlet; the same applies to a theatre style, such as avant-garde. So it was for you, dear reader, that I rented and watched L.A. Tool & Die, the 70’s male porno movie by Joe Gage, who set the standard for tough-guy blue movies. You see, writer/director Sean Abley is doing a send-up of that film on stage at the Celebration Theatre. I was fascinated by Mr. Abley’s adaptation and the way he culled dialogue directly from the film. I concentrated on nuance, subtext, and plot while watching the classic film – and whereas most people fast-forward through the dialogue, I fast-forwarded through the sex – until that blood-curdling moment when I recognized one of the actors as an ex-teacher of mine. Yech. What I do for art.

Whether the cacophony of disgruntled, highfalutin critics wants to admit it or not, there is a place for absurd-parody-drag queen-nude theatre such as L.A. Tool & Die: Live!  The premise of poking fun at porno movies, in the way that the movie Airplane! parodied disaster movies, is wonderful. There is nothing wrong with liberally borrowing from source material, either: Airplane! lifts lines and camera angles directly from the 1957 thriller, Zero Hour, then triumphs due to its situational believability, casting of traditionally serious actors, character-driven dialogue (albeit sophomoric and corny), and predictability. L.A. Tool & Die: Live! suffers because it did not follow Airplane!’s recipe for success.

This sixty minute Tool definitely needs a fluffer: it delivers some satisfying thrusts, but keeps losing its erection with some truly flaccid humor, leaving the audience in an unfulfilled state of detumescence. Mr. Abley and his naked thespians deliver a few funny moments, some uproarious, but many dick jokes don’t measure up. Doubly frustrating is that the target audience (oh, come on, you know who you are) is ready to explode at the drop of a zipper; we’re willing to laugh, we’re wanting to laugh, we’re waiting to laugh.

The seed of a plot is there: über-masculine Hank (Thomas Colby-Dog) seems quite content being a bearded, butch, brawling boner-lover – until he meets shy, closeted Wiley (Jon Gale) in a bar and gets a heart-on for him. The subtext here is that both men are hindered by the social stigma that keeps them from admitting their love for each other. Cowboy Wiley takes off with his dog and moves to Los Angeles where he gets a job at a tool and die shop. Hank realizes his stupidity in letting Wiley go, so he tails him across the Heartland. Along the way, both studs find fertile pastures in which to breed. (Clearly, the frustration of unrealized love has the two men bottoming out…emotionally and otherwise.) Don’t worry, I won’t give away the end – everyone in the story does that for me.

Mr. Colby-Dog is perfectly cast as the tough and gruff Hank, but the performance falters, largely due to unfunny business. As Wiley, Mr. Gale nails what most of the cast is missing: nuance and realism – even when he is talking with his (puppet) dog. Therein lies the prescription of theatrical Viagra that this show needs to swallow: when ludicrous matter is presented ludicrously, it cancels out the humor. Porn acting is notoriously bad, but the characterizations on display here are so broad (for the most part), that they no longer represent porn acting; when there are unrestrained portrayals of bad acting, it makes comedic mediocrity become unbearable, leaving the poor actors onstage to push even more for laughs – which is as uncomfortable and awkward to watch as porn actors attempting sexual performances when not aroused (OK, so I didn’t fast-forward through all of the sex in the movie).

One particularly funny device has Hank constantly flashing back to the moment that he let Wiley go. Repetition is funny, but the line delivered when Hank crashes his car after one such flashback isn’t: Hank says, “Damn flashbacks should come with warning labels.” Even the crickets didn’t chirp. Why? It did not feel indigenous to the character.

Lines that do work: When a man and (drag) woman are humping in the back seat of a car, she screams, “Don’t touch my HAIRRRR.” Then a young kid (the always credible Kevin Held) throws away the used condom that the couple tossed aside; Hank implores him to keep it, with, “That there’s good eatin’.”

The unexpected also creates chortles: Hank stands outside a bathroom door, watching the gaggle of glory-hole devotees enter one by one. When a disco dancer with sequins and black afro-wig enters, the audience roared. But that was followed with a long parade of goofy characters that one may suspect you would see in such a circumstance. The laughter died down. Suddenly, a man in an open hospital gown goes in, and the needle of the laugh-o-meter goes off the scale again. Two funny bits out of that whole parade of characters made my jaws clench when they should be wide, wide open; these comedy misfires, especially if the set-up is ripe with possibilities, can be like nails on a chalkboard.

Later, when Hank and Wiley make out for the first time, they are so excited that they are incapable of removing their clothes; the struggle is funny because it seems like something embarrassing that could actually happen. Suddenly, a van dyke-sporting drag queen (Paul A. Brown) impersonates Charlene singing, “I’ve never been to me” while the boys screw. Now it feels cringingly embarrassing.

There may yet be a life for this potential-ridden nudie burlesque. Mr. Abley should not assume silly gay business is automatically funny – it’s cheap and ultimately cheats the very audience you want to entertain. Treat the target audience (and you still know who you are) as sophisticates. If you build it, they will come (sp?). Stick to the story and cut the stupid shenanigans. Even in the best of circumcisions, the evening may be nothing more than a Carol Burnett-like sketch, but it could have been a laugh riot, taking uncomfortable but titillating subject matter (gay porn) and giving audiences a chance to guffaw at the ridiculousness of it all.

Even with rampant nudity, this cast didn’t get a chance to bare their souls.

tonyfrankel @ stageandcinema.com

scheduled to end September 11 at time of publication
for tickets, visit http://www.celebrationtheatre.com/

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