The Rocky Horror Picture Show

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Transvestism, nudity and kinky sex, juggled sexualities, dismemberment, gratuitous violence, mad scientists, rampaging psychotics, depraved and corrupted adolescents: you know you want to see it. Preferably all together. The only question is what package you want it in. Are you the sort who likes to think in an atmosphere of panting, gasping, fantasizing and salivating? Or would you rather do those things to pounding Goth-tinged house music and an easy-on-the-brain shower of twice-recycled pop references?

The allure of New York is that we have choices. If Joe Orton's brilliant 1969 farce What the Butler Saw doesn't shake your pom-poms, you can just walk four blocks and pay twice as much to see the revival of Richard O'Brien's 1973 musical The Rocky Horror Show. You probably have a hunch which party I belong to.

I'm not so partisan that I can't see how slick Christopher Ashley's new version of Rocky Horror is, though. Narrated by Dick Cavett with that bemused, ironic dryness that has made him a tube icon, and featuring an amazingly pumped-up lead performance by Tom Hewitt as Dr. Frank 'N' Furter (the role originated by Tim Curry), the show is pure candy?tacky and nugatory. It's also conveniently predigested, like a giant jawbreaker your big brother has sucked on for a while and then passed over to you, after which you keep sucking on it because you're convinced it really is exploding new tastes in your mouth every few minutes, as the wrapper claims.

Rocky Horror was a stage musical before it became a cult movie, and the nature of the cult was always decidedly theatrical, with spectators dressing up like the film's characters, memorizing the script and shouting obscene ad-lib retorts at the screen. There was, then, some reason to believe that reviving the musical might be worthwhile, beyond the fact that the first generation of kids who saw the film dozens of times can now afford to be milked at Broadway prices. Unfortunately, at the preview I attended, all the supposedly impromptu give-and-take with the live actors was as pre-scripted as the moviegoers' stale quips. People waved flashlights and newspapers and threw water and confetti from the $10 prop bags they'd bought in the lobby, and seemed happy to participate that way, but the majority of the heckles clearly came from actors planted in the audience, and the show's pace and routine were never in any real danger of interruption. The production, in other words, for all its glitzy new adornment and splendid execution, is as essentially prefabricated and predictable as the celluloid-driven experience it's now inevitably copying.

In case you tuned in late, Rocky Horror is about the sudden, shocking immersion of a pencil-straight 1950s kid-couple, Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, into the loose sexual morality of the 1970s, rendered spuriously decadent by an extravagant admixture of rock 'n' roll, comic-book, sci-fi and horror movie simulacra. After their car breaks down, the virginal Brad (Jarrod Emick) and Janet (Alice Ripley) seek help at the secluded laboratory of the maniacal Dr. Frank 'N' Furter, a transvestite-spy from the planet Transexual in the galaxy of Transylvania, who proceeds to seduce them both. Meanwhile they witness the "birth" of the doctor's lab-created boy-toy, Rocky (Sebastian LeCause), the chainsaw-murder of a fat biker named Eddie (Lea Delaria), and various other kinky shenanigans by the incestuous brother-sister cronies Riff Raff (Raul Esparza) and Magenta (Daphne Rubin-Vega). And in the end, everything is brought to half-baked climax and conclusion by the unexpected visit of Eddie's uncle, a crypto-Nazi professor in a wheelchair (Delaria), and a rebellion by Riff Raff and Magenta.

There isn't really any fear or shock to the material anymore (if there ever was), and Ashley crucially understood that the key to keeping the whole sweat-soaked air bubble aloft is thus to maintain a nearly frenzied tempo for the entire two hours. From the opening number, then, loosed like twin cannon shots by straight and gay sex objects in identical usherette costumes (Rubin-Vega?the original Mimi from Rent?paired with a shaved-head Joan Jett), to Hewitt's clamorous and flamboyant entrance in a glittering, phallic dumbwaiter-cum-spaceship, to the reprise of "The Time Warp" added to the curtain call in response to manufactured audience demand, the stage and its occupants swirl, spasm, lurch, flash and recoil to the point where it's unimaginable anyone could bear any more. I tip my hat to set designer David Rockwell, who came up with numerous visual paroxysms to match (an exploding proscenium, fold-away movie seats with manikins, a beaker-bedecked catwalk that descends to form a sort of stage girdle) in the most awkwardly constructed theater in New York.

Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway (50th St.), 239-6200, through Feb.25.

What the Butler Saw By Joe Orton

You would think that anyone attempting What the Butler Saw would understand that it, too, needs a rushed tempo to lift it into a realm where its absurdity seems quasi-normal. Orton said in his diary that one of his main concerns while writing it was to "keep up sufficient frenzy to the end of the play." Scott Elliot's production with his company the New Group, though, is like an insufficiently inflated tire. It contains scattered whiffs of fun?and even a few moments of true insanity in Dylan Baker's leading performance as Dr. Prentice?but no sustained crackle or bite, which is especially puzzling since not only Baker but every actor in the cast is of surpassing ability. It is practically a dream company, including Lisa Emery, Peter Frechette, Chloe Sevigny, Karl Geary and Max Baker.

I won't try to divine what happened here. Critics are almost always wrong when they try to guess in such circumstances without any inside scoop. It is bizarre, though, to see an actor as smart and capable as Emery leisurely savoring glib lines like, "Have you taken up transvestism? I'd no idea our marriage teetered on the edge of fashion," as if she were dwelling on holy writ. And it's beyond comprehension how anyone as seasoned and resourceful as Frechette, playing the out-of-control psychiatrist and government inspector Dr. Rance, could sit motionless like a lump on a couch, opposite another motionless actor, during the entirety of his pretentious disquisitions. In this or any other farce, it should simply never occur to the audience to ask, say, why one character doesn't recognize another beneath a flimsy disguise, or why that character agreed to disguise himself in the first place; such questions assert themselves in this production all the time.

Acting and directing aside, though, I'm saddened to discover that Butler, the irreverent Orton's greatest play, is also showing its age a bit these days. The plot is set in motion by Dr. Prentice's attempt to lie his way out of being caught misbehaving with his new secretary, after first his wife and then Dr. Rance barge into his seedy office. Everything snowballs from there, with Rance declaring the secretary insane and jumping to dozens of other outrageous conclusions based on his irrational mania for rational explanation and categorization. The ideas behind this are still current and will no doubt remain so until we're all as dead as Orton and the irrational lover who murdered him. The problem is that the satire's immediate targets?the godlike arrogance of doctors and the controlling patriarchal conceits of husbands, heads of state and males in general?have altered a lot in three and a half decades. They still exist but we no longer quake before them.

There are enough deathless gems in Butler to keep it stageworthy well into posterity, I suspect, given the right directorial adjustments to changing mores. (How many plays, after all, can boast climaxes involving the miraculous retrieval of the late Sir Winston Churchill's missing member?) There's no point in even contemplating such adjustments, though, if you haven't the basic, furious knack of doing farce.

Theater at St. Clement's, 423 W. 46th St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.), 279-4200, through Dec 10.

Crave By Sarah Kane

Another disappointment for me was Crave by Sarah Kane, the British writer who committed suicide last year at age 28 amid an astonishing rise to fame that included comparisons to Beckett, Pinter, Bond and other luminaries of incantatory terseness. Like most Americans, I didn't know her work before seeing this 55-minute piece for four voices, directed at the Axis Theater by Randy Sharp, and it's now very hard for me to credit any of the claims.

Crave is apparently composed of parallel monologues by lonely, self-scrutinizing characters, two male and two female, that only occasionally relate to one another, and these are spoken at Axis by Brian Barnhart, David Guion, Kristin DiSpaltro and Deborah Harry (of Blondie). I say "apparently" because it's not entirely clear that each of the voices is only one character, or that any of the characters in fact knows any of the others. The actors stand beside one another on a dark stage with eerie gobo patterns and speak with minimal movement and without interacting as a dozen video monitors affixed to the ceiling show them in various circumstances, sometimes restless and alone at home or in a bar, alone or interacting with each other.

All this is a puzzle one might be tempted to figure out if the script were as compelling and original as the preshow journalism reported. As it happens, though, it is full of whiny, sophomoric triteness ("My laughter is a bubble of despair"), self-piteous cliches ("You can only kill yourself if you're not already dead"), Hallmark sentimentality ("I want to play hide-and-seek and give you my clothes and tell you I like your shoes") and pseudo-profound word juxtapositions ("Yes. No. Yes. No. No. Yes. Yes")?all of which use up one's patience well before the final blackout. Let's hope Kane's other plays bear out her reputation a little better than this one.

Axis Theater, 1 Sheridan Square (7th Ave. S. & W. 4th St.), 807-9300, through Dec. 23.

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