April 11, 2008
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Sometimes you can pinpoint the exact moment when a play irrevocably pulls you into its corner.
With Jeff Goode's Love Loves a Pornographer, getting a nifty Houston premiere courtesy of Nova Arts Project, it's this inspired bit of verbal lunacy:
"Your latest creation elicits illicit elations."
Goode's playful homage to drawing room comedy has already rhapsodized about "savage enravagements" and tossed off wry epigrams such as "A man should take pride in his livelihood, however shameful." Not to mention the priggish antagonist who, described as "rakish," defends himself with this choice retort: "In my entire life, I have never been rakish with so much as a leaf-strewn lawn."
Yet for me, it was that "illicit elations" line that put the play over the top. Despite a few lulls here and there and a sense of winding down near the close, Pornographer can be recommended for the sheer merriment of its ingenious wordplay and the fun this cast generates delivering it. It's the heightened language that's supposed to sound like stage talk, not everyday talk.
Premiered in December by Los Angeles' Circle X Theatre Company, Pornographer starts out as a tribute to, or spoof of, Victorian drawing room comedy as epitomized by Oscar Wilde. Yet midway, it acquires a more modernist bent - as if a play by John Guare or Christopher Durang or Paul Rudnick had wandered in and mingled with the earlier model.
Famed novelist Lord Cyril Loveworthy and his wife, Lady Lillian, entertain the Rev. Miles Monger, who also happens to be the Times of London's lead literary critic, and his wife, Millicent. Lord Loveworthy, whose writing is respected but not sufficiently lucrative, tries to blackmail Rev. Monger into a favorable review of his next book. Lord Loveworthy needs the boost so that he can finance the wedding of his daughter, Emily.
Emily arrives with the man she plans to marry - not "an earl" as her parents had misunderstood, but Earl, a scruffy bookseller Emily met in Flagstaff, Arizona. While the other characters are steadfastly British and Victorian in speech and attire, Earl is thoroughly contemporary and American. Before long, other anachronisms creep into the scene. One character leafs through an issue of Vanity Fair. Another sips not from a teacup but a can of soft drink.
The thunderbolt is the revelation that Earl's bookstore specializes in erotica. "Earl is a pornographer" Emily announces, the punchline just before intermission (at which the butler faints dead away.) The second half is (as the butler announces) "a series of shocking revelations." All pertain to which of the other characters are secret readers of the star author whose work Earl sells, or have secretly written those books, or even secretly inspired the whole series through real-life experiences recounted in a diary.
Was every Victorian a secret hedonist? As one character observes, "You make this licentiousness sound almost medicinal."
An exercise in theatrical style, Pornographer marks a change of pace for the young Nova Arts group. Director Rob Kimbro generally keeps things crisp, brisk and light of touch. Apart from a few hesitant moments (and remember, many of these lines are a mouthful), this team gives the play a capable rendition.
Sean Patrick Judge makes Lord Loveworthy sly, condescending and morally slippery. Given many of the script's most potentially tongue-tangling lines, he handles them with authority. Timothy Evers makes an amusing foil as the stuffy, stodgy Miles Monger - prim, prudish and sourly disapproving.
Jenni Rebecca Stephenson brings haughty confidence to Lady Loveworthy. Melissa N. Davis' Millicent Monger is particularly appealing, indefatigably cheery with an unabashedly saucy streak.
Bobby Haworth's laid-back Earl Kant seems to have wandered in from another play, continent and century, which is exactly the point. Katrina Ellsworth shows daughter Emily's increasing iconclasm and rebelliousness.
As the butler, Wayne Barnhill, formerly of Infernal Bridegroom, has a droll way of being unflappably obliging to his "betters" yet at the same time mocking them.
You might say that while Love Loves a Pornographer is not quite Wilde, it's certainly very Goode.