The Foreplay's the Thing
Upward of a hundred people sit expectantly in the Cine-Stage room of the Mitchell Brothers' O'Farrell Theatre, one soul in a Members Only jacket surreptitiously applying Chap Stick. A disembodied voice announces in a baritone, Luther Vandross style so deep, so mellow it barely whispers the vocal chords: "We take you to a nice steamy night on Sunset Boulevard in June."
The curtains part to whoops from the crowd, revealing a slide projection of a BMW parked on a city street, a multimedia atmospheric detail that suggests perhaps a direct homage to director George Coates. The bilevel stage is painted as a landscape of asphalt and white dashes. A bench seat sits front and center, providently padded ... and San Francisco poises to welcome back another hometown native who left the Bay Area to make it big in Los Angeles -- Stella Marie Thompson, aka Divine Brown.
Press materials describe her as the "owner of the lips that busted Hugh Grant." Brown's punishment -- AIDS classes, petty fines, and community service -- is ancient history tonight. The path has been cleared for a new singing career and an upcoming autobiography, and opening night belongs to the twin muses of comedy and tragedy. As the O'Farrell Theatre marquee blazes to the world: "Hugh got it in the car, and now she's a star."
Adapted from an original idea by British film actor Hugh Grant, the production essentially is the story of a man, a woman, and the harsh realities of civil jurisprudence. The drama finds two people of disparate backgrounds struggling to understand themselves and each other, set amid a background tapestry of Los Angeles prostitution, British repression, and German luxury cars. And as with other, bigger-budget productions several blocks closer to Union Square, the Divine Brown script is but a blueprint, a blank canvas in two acts provided for actors to add the brushwork.
The Hugh Grant character enters, played by a blond woman in bulging khakis, a blue sport shirt, and a baseball cap that says "Just Do Me." Mr. Grant sits on the bench and mimes driving, to an invigorating disco theme having something to do with neon lights on Sunset. Two slinky meretrixes mince onstage in high heels, each attempting to woo the cuddly English actor, with little success. Mr. Grant adjusts his khakis and waves them off.
The Luther Vandross narrator suddenly pierces the fourth wall: "Miss Divine Brown."
And then a blazing crimson vinyl dress struts out, swinging a tiny purse. The crowd gasps. It's her -- last year's streetwalker celebrity-by-proximity, the Kato Kaelin of working girls! America embodied, without shame! Ms. Brown commands the stage, controlling her assets with an electrifying presence that leaves each audience member sharing an identical thought: "Wow, she really has been a hooker."
Ms. Brown expertly seduces the hapless Brit, who eagerly flashes a fan of U.S. currency. The small amount seems to insult the higher-priced sensibilities of Ms. Brown, just as it actually happened, but a deal is eventually struck, and within seconds she has freed Mr. Grant of various clothing restrictions, producing from his trousers an artificial man gland, wrapped in a Union Jack. Accompanied by Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby," Ms. Brown then gives an enthusiastic and professional demonstration of why she is still in the newspapers, to which someone hollers out from the dark: "You go, girl!"
Suddenly whistles blow, sirens blare, lights flash. Female cops in mirror shades swarm the stage. Busted in the act! Hugh and Divine! Cuffed, against the wall! Hauled offstage! The curtain closes to a cacophony of pounding hearts.
There is no intermission. The second act unfolds at the hoosegow. While Ms. Brown is fingerprinted and posing for mug shots, Mr. Grant sits dejectedly on a sofa, stage left. He is surprised by girlfriend Elizabeth Hurley, who has chosen a skintight white vinyl cocktail dress for her jailhouse visit. His apologetic mewlings are met with a sharp cuff to the head. Simultaneously, up on a second level, the two previously introduced strumpets are cooling their high heels in a jail cell, clearly failing to resist the amorous advances of female officers. Within seconds, it seems, our drama has evolved into a scenario of Paphian proportions. Accompanied by the strains of "Bad Girls," the troupe hurls itself into a vigorous nymphomaniacal frenzy: Mr. Grant and Ms. Hurley, the police and the streetwalkers, Ms. Brown and her arresting officer, etc. This lengthy dramatic high point gives the audience time to note the many communities represented onstage: Latin Americans, African-Americans, Anglo blondes, as well as examples of the home appliance and cosmetic surgery industries. After a final bow from the entire cast, the curtain closes on the still-quivering derriere of Ms. Brown, the stage littered with feather boas, cop hats, and condom wrappers -- an unforgettable half-hour that provides much to discuss on the walk home from the theater.
"I just saw some of the dangest things I ever seen in my life," drawls one young man in Coke-bottle glasses.
Like Glenn Close or Sarah Brightman, Ms. Brown graciously makes herself available to fans after the performance, for personal Polaroid photos, autographs, and sales of T-shirts. Glittering in a short, red, sequined dress, she sits on an imitation stone bench underneath a proscenium decorated with a blown-up image of herself in a shiny black biker hat. A small tattoo above her right breast reads in script: "Gangster Brown."