There is a long, ridiculous tradition of transforming Hollywood blockbusters into cheap, straight-to-video smut with titles like Pulp Friction, The DaVinci Load, and E3: The Extra Testicle. Craig Brewer's Black Snake Moan became Black Snake Boned. Rambo became Rambutt. And I've got to admit, I was pretty darn excited when I saw that the Emerald Theatre Company (ETC) was producing a campy new comedy called Porn Yesterday by It's Murder, Mary playwrights Andrew Black and Patricia Milton.
The premise was simply too good to be true: A bubbleheaded star of adult films breaks free from his domineering boyfriend/producer while falling in love with the drama coach who's helping him become a serious Shakespearian actor. Porn Yesterday promised to lampoon the well-known performances of Broderick Crawford, William Holden, and Judy Holliday in George Cukor's film version of Born Yesterday while also having a go at dirty movies. What else could you ask for?
ETC is what we talk about when we talk about community theater. That's no pejorative, although some of the company's shows are amateur hour. ETC has also done some excellent work. A production of Charles Bush's campy black comedy You Should Be So Lucky, for example, was sloppy around the edges, but it was also a lot of smart fun, and Porn Yesterday gives the impression that it's cut from similar cloth.
My expectations sank through the floor, however, when I dropped in on a nearly empty Saturday-night performance. After 14 seasons at TheatreWorks, Memphis' only performance troupe producing exclusively gay-themed material should be able to attract a substantial first-weekend crowd, shouldn't it? What did everybody else know that I didn't, I wondered.
Porn Yesterday does have one thing in common with porn movies: The script is terrible. And not in a clever, self-conscious way, either. It's just bad writing that misses every target it's supposed to be spoofing.
Born Yesterday works especially well because Crawford's character, Harry Brock, is more than just a blustering thug. He's a blustering thug who's gone to Washington, D.C., to prove there's no elected official who can't be bought or intimidated into doing what he wants. The audience doesn't just want to see Brock lose his girl. We want to see him fail completely. That's not the case with Vic Patterson, Porn Yesterday's lightweight answer to Brock. Patterson, nicely played by ETC co-founder Den-Nickolas Smith, isn't a dangerous threat. He's just a crass, badly dressed party boy who wants to sell more dildoes.
Judy Holliday's Billie Dawn character is transformed into Rex Everest, Patterson's exceptionally well-endowed boy toy who wants to clean up his act. But Dawn was effervescent and interesting even before William Holden taught her all about the finer points of representative democracy, while Everest, as played by Dustin Holder, is a drawling lunkhead throughout.
Jamie Hale stands in for Holden as Colin O'Hara, a tragic, sexually confused actor and drama coach who falls in love with Everest while trying to help him to get in touch with his emotions. The only problem is that, unlike Holden, whose character Paul Verrall is driven by strongly held political convictions, Hale is a nebbish and anything but the master of his own emotions. He's only recently become separated from his wife, and the hot affair he's having with a notorious gay porn star seems more like a cause for concern than for celebration.
Born Yesterday is a romantic comedy and an effective satire of government corruption. Billie Dawn isn't just Brock's floozie. She represents the blissfully ignorant American electorate that becomes educated and realizes she's being abused by a bunch of pushy goons. Porn Yesterday isn't even very effective as comedy, and no matter how astute the playwright's commentary about Edward II, audiences simply aren't going to have the same kinds of feelings about Elizabethan theater that they have for their country.
Through September 19th at TheatreWorks