People often ask me, Mr. Chatterbox, how did you become what you are? What could have possibly transformed you from a naïve youth from the suburbs, stumbling and bumbling and unsure of himself, into a mature artiste, full of wit and wisdom and able to hold an audience in the palm of your hand for up to five minutes, particularly if they've been served cocktails? Well, there's only one answer to that question-Off-Off-Broadway.
Off-Off-Broadway is that realm of the New York theater world that comes after Broadway and Off-Broadway, with their glittering commercial productions starring bona fide actors in real theaters that actually have heating during the winter months. Off-Off-Broadway you're more likely to find in lofts in fringe neighborhoods, three flights up. Nobody gets paid. The audience sits on folding chairs or wooden benches-if there is an audience. (I've played to two people, and there was more than one occasion when nobody showed up at all.)
Plays performed Off-Off-Broadway are usually very avant-garde. In my experience this meant the actors tended to crawl around on the floor and communicate in guttural sounds. Or else they sat in straight-backed chairs and talked in poetic monologues the audience didn't quite "get" (and which were very difficult to memorize).
By far my favorites were the campy musicals. The great drag divas of Andy Warhol's Factory-Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis-were always putting on shows in which the sets were glitter and chiffon and twinkling Christmas lights, and they would try and outdo each other as they clumsily tap-danced to Puttin' on the Ritz. Who can ever forget the opening scene of Vain Victory, where Candy Darling (a.k.a. James Slattery from Massapequa, Long Island, who died of leukemia at age 25) sat dressed in a gorgeous all-white gown and recited the opening paragraph of Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls? ("You have to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls.") Pure theatrical magic.
I have no idea what Off-Off-Broadway is like these days, but back when I was there it was a little cauldron of talent and ideas and ambition and occasional genius. Many of the people I knew and worked with went on to become household names: Harvey Fierstein, Bette Midler, Richard Gere. Even poor Hervé Villechaize, who went on to fame as Tattoo on Fantasy Island ("Da plane, boss, da plane"). I'll never forget the night at Phebe's (our hangout and the Sardi's of Off-Off-Broadway) when I sat on the top of his head, mistaking him for a barstool.
Then I moved to Sarasota. Now, Sarasota, as we all know, has wonderful theater. But to me there was always one thing missing: new plays, done by a group of artists all working together, sometimes succeeding, more often failing, but always learning from the experience-like Off-Off-Broadway. There's something about the challenge of making something work on stage for the first time that is totally different from trying to reproduce something that was successful somewhere else. Sure, there's the occasional Jack Gilhooley production, or Jay Handelman directing Alligators. But other than that, the pickings for new stuff have been pretty slim.
That's why I'm so nutty about that new Backlot theater. First of all, it's located in the middle of nowhere-an industrial park in the north part of town. Second, it really does seem committed to doing new stuff. Recently I went to see the gg monologues there; and I must say, one look at those folding chairs and I was swept right back to my Off-Off-Broadway days.
The gg monologues is a curious play with a curious history. It's the brainchild of a woman named Amy Knapp, who created the "gg" character several years ago and has shown her off in blogs and a column she did briefly for SRQ Magazine. Gg is a single Sarasota girl who is lively, forthright and completely up to the moment. Her concerns are simple ones-dating, friends, magazines, celebrities, beauty regimens and so forth. On the stage she is played by 12 different actresses, one for each month. Each one comes out and does a short monologue about such things as renting a Mustang for the weekend to attract guys, or wondering who's older, her or Heather Locklear, or going sailing with a potential Mr. Right.
First of all, my congratulations to everyone involved. The 12 actresses are terrific. I had no idea they could gather together so much attractive young talent in Sarasota-and manage to have all their schedules mesh. The production, directed by Amanda Schlachter, is simplicity itself but manages to be highly stylish and hip. The first things you see when you walk in are 12 different pairs of shoes, each pair chosen to fit (in more ways than one) the actress and her monologue. It's the perfect visual representation of what you are about to see, and it works beautifully.
As I watched the play unfold, though, I began to realize that Ms. Knapp and I see gg a little differently. For her, gg is endlessly endearing-feisty, loyal, sexy. In the romance department she shows a little cynicism about men, as she has been disappointed before. But she always bounces back, smiling, cracking little ironic jokes to her friends on her cell phone.
But after a while I started to see a different gg. She's that girl who passes you on the South Trail in her red convertible, so caught up in her cell phone conversation that she's rude to us older drivers. Her self-absorption is amazing. She reminds you of Carrie Bradshaw and her friends on Sex and the City, to be sure. But she's also Monica Lewinsky-spoiled, self-important, feeling entitled to everything the world has to offer, even an affair with the President. Her emotional and intellectual world never rises above the trivial. She hasn't learned anything, other than how to apply butter to your lips when you forget your lipstick. There's no drama yet.
But that is precisely the source of gg's pull. She's state-of-the-art, postmodern, the perfect blogger. Amy Knapp adores her. I find her kind of scary. But she holds my interest, and I watch fascinated as she prattles on about nothing. The sheer force of her personality makes her play such an unlikely success.
The Backlot works with a number of theatrical and musical organizations, including Sarasota Actor's Workshop, Women's Theatre Collaborative and Sarasota Senior Theater; coming up later this month is the newest installment of improv comedy from Becky's Rejects, on July 26. For more schedule information, call 363-9300 or go to www.backlotarts.com.