Three's Company

Fishnets catch virgins in Theatre in the Round's <i>Shivaree</i>

Fishnets catch virgins in Theatre in the Round's Shivaree

The cast of The Crowded Bed showed up at Balls Cabaret on Saturday Night still in costume from their earlier performance at the Acadia Café. Lawrence Hutera, for example, sat swathed in a dun-colored African-print dashiki and matching turban, his arms and neck piled high with amber jewelry that, apparently, he makes himself.

Director John Townsend had dragged the cast to Balls to help drum up audiences for his mounting of Harold Kahm's comedy of polyandry. Townsend stalked up and down the aisles at Balls, handing out two-for-one passes, and then introduced his cast and asked that they perform a scene. Hutera immediately, and regally, promenaded toward the stage, his costume trailing behind him like the flowing train of a wedding gown. He waved his amber-encrusted hands in the air hypnotically, speaking in a thick British accent as he walked. "Am I world-famous psychiatrist Dr. Alistair Kravitz," he asked, "or am I Norma Desmond?" Cast members Stephanie Carver and Joe Jacobsen Hart joined him onstage in the only costumes that could possibly upstage Hutera: their bare flesh and revealing underwear. One can never be certain what will happen on the stage at Balls--later that evening, for example, two performers mimed eating a confection made out of cotton candy and live rats, and then repeated this performance six times.

But even in this environment, there was something extraordinary about The Crowded Bed. Never mind that the Minneapolis playwright is 94 years old. Never mind that Hutera's character is the author of popular books with titles like Masturbation for the Millions and What Every Teenager Should Know About Anal Eroticism. Never mind that the play's cheesy, punch-line-driven dialogue sounds as if it was transcribed from a late-Sixties nudie-cutie (a David F. Freidman film, perhaps, such as Bell, Bare and Beautiful). Sample Crowded Bed dialogue:

"Do you like feminine people, Arthur?"

"Oh, yes! Especially girls!"

All that would be quite unexpected, yes, but it hardly compares to the shock of realizing that Kahm's play is fundamentally, unswervingly, unflappably an argument for ménage à trois--or, in the play's own language, "How can two studs share the same chick?" While the question itself is dated (even most teenagers nowadays could answer the question with four single-syllable words: Get a big bed), that's really beside the point. The question was dated in 1968, when the play is set, and when Kahm originally wrote the book upon which this play is based. You would need to have been an illiterate redneck or a cloistered, eccentric millionaire not to know about the sexual faddism of the era, such as group marriage--although, to Kahm's credit, those are exactly the characters he gives us, played by Hart and Anthony Kuehn.

I imagine it must have been quite entertaining reading about the sexual bewilderment of these two hopelessly out-of-touch characters when the book was written, in the same way that National Lampoon magazine loved to make an exaggerated to-do out of such experiences as first-time marijuana use. But staging these scenes now can only serve one purpose, and that is to act as campy nostalgia. The play is as oddly unsexy (despite its handsome cast and occasional flashes of nudity) as those semi-shredded, 30-year-old paperbacks that adult bookstores sell for 50 cents, with titles like Top Notch Nymph (by Dana Firstenbed!), which offer a sort of comical sexual adventurousness that was quickly made obsolete by hardcore porn's grim literalness.

I suspect that director Townsend has a more serious purpose than mere camp, though; at Balls I overheard him commenting that this was the sort of play that people in the suburbs needed to see. I don't know what he expects suburbanites to learn from The Crowded Bed. After all, in the 30 years since Kahm published his novel, the suburbs have seen their share of bisexual orgies, wife-swapping key parties, and naked games of Twister. Townsend's sense of mission, however misconceived it might be, certainly doesn't hurt the play.

After all, camp is always best when it takes itself seriously, and it is even better when it believes itself to be educational. And, when the play gives us two men who strip off their clothes, drink themselves into a delirium, and prepare to go to war with each other because a buxom gal in a macramé dress is insisting on her right to screw them both--well, we have to go back to Ed Wood's mock-serious, vaguely medical-sounding monologues over his execrable films to find camp this pure.

The world of theater is sometimes one of shocking coincidence--I mean, who could have expected that last week two Alfred Uhry plays about the varied experiences of the Jewish Southerner would play within a few blocks of each other in St. Paul? Even still, when Theatre in the Round's production of Shivaree opened with a young man dressed in the costume of a cloistered, eccentric millionaire (honey-colored linen three-piece suit with scarlet cravat) studying a girlie magazine while his illiterate redneck friend waxed lewd about the charms of the "vertical smile," I nearly fled the theater. Déjà vu of this magnitude is very much like having a panic attack.

Fortunately, William Mastrosimone's play quickly abandons sexual libertinism and stakes out its own territory as a rather engaging work of illness theater (like Wit--you know the sort, in which beautiful people suffer beautifully, allowing the audience to draw important life lessons from their pain). In this instance, the disease is hemophilia. The millionaire in the honey-colored suit is not a millionaire at all; he is a boy whose blood won't coagulate properly, and he is played by Ryan W. Scott with freshly scrubbed earnestness. As is the convention of the genre, he falls in love, in this instance with a free-spirited belly dancer (an ebullient Nicola Barber). Further, this love brings about a magnificent change in his life. Just as in The Crowded Bed, this involves the stripping off of clothes and diving into the sack, but my panic had settled by this point, and I handled this coincidence with equanimity.