Monday, May 22, 2017

Old Habits Die Hard

Some habits are deceptively easy to acquire. Whether by mimicking the behavior of parents and peers or trying to push the envelope just a little bit further, there comes a moment of reckoning when having another drink or lighting another cigarette becomes second nature; when we start to justify tossing refuse like candy wrappers and cigarette butts onto the sidewalk by telling ourselves that "everyone does it."

It took me years to break the habit of answering a phone just because it was ringing. Even if I was just stepping out of the shower, if the phone started to ring, I would grab a towel and (dripping with water) race to the next room to make sure I answered the call. Having a digital answering machine made no difference. Where I grew up, it was considered rude not to answer a telephone call within the first four rings.

What helped me break that habit? Robocalls. Once I understood that my sleep was being disturbed by an automatic dialer on a computer in another city, I taught myself to roll over and go back to sleep. If Barack Obama could "evolve" with regard to same-sex marriage, I could evolve with regard to phone scams and telemarketing.

Nowadays, if caller ID shows a telephone number or originating city that doesn't jog my memory, I simply ignore the call. If the caller doesn't leave a message, too fucking bad. Not only don't I care, I'm a whole lot happier without worrying about having missed a call.

Bad habits that lead to substance abuse (involving alcohol, drugs, and/or food) can be extremely difficult to break. So, for that matter, can habits involving language that has fallen from grace.
  • For some of us, it took a conscious effort to progress from using the word "Negro" to saying "Black" or "African-American."
  • Many of us still talk about "dialing" a phone number although no one I know uses a rotary phone anymore.
  • Some people have adjusted to referring to a man's husband or a woman's wife but still have difficulty using nonbinary gender terms.
  • Words which have morphed into verbs (such as "conversate" and "Google") or been popularized by hipsters and Millennials (such as "totes" and "whatevs") tend to drive grammarians crazy.

Over at the Potrero Stage, the 21st annual Playground Festival of New Works is presenting a program of six short plays, three of which help to remind us how some of our most deeply-ingrained habits can now paint us as clueless and anachronistic trolls.

Directed by Eric Reid, Maury Zeff's Come And Knock on Our Door takes a look back at the popular sitcom, Three's Company (which ran from 1977-1984) through the lens of a more socially enlightened society. Janet Wood (Robyn Grahn) gets a phone call from her roommate, Chrissy, informing her that Chrissy's cousin is coming to visit. As they chat about what Gloria (Nancy French) is like, Janet is admonished never to refer to Gloria as a "girl."

Gloria (Nancy French), Jack (Liam Vincent), and Janet (Robyn
Grahn) in a scene from Come and Knock On Our Door
(Photo by:

Janet's roommate, Jack Tripper (Liam Vincent) -- a character originally created by John Ritter -- is now seen as a clueless straight white male whose behavior reeks of sexism. While that might seem like a minor detail, its significance becomes much more obvious when Gloria turns out to be a young Gloria Steinem and the landlord -- an African-American woman named Shirley (Michelle Ianiro) -- is actually Shirley Chisholm.

What makes this 10-minute play a winner is Liam Vincent's hilariously over-the-top characterization of Jack Tripper as a socially inept would-be Lothario who can't understand why his roaming hands are not welcomed by the ladies or why his standard pick-up lines (dripping with innuendo) are landing like lead balloons. Wearing a pair of beltless polyester pants, Vincent delivers comic gold. Here's the trailer:

Directed by Jim Kleinmann, Melissa Keith's Mission: Ambivalent spoofs another TV staple -- the secret agent who must always rush to a crime scene in order to save the day. There's just one problem. Tom (Liam Vincent) is not your typical hero. As the play starts, he's carefully shopping for grocery items which have double-value coupons in a supermarket when he is contacted by Jerry (Nicole Apostol Bruno) with news of a bomb threat.

Although Tom protests that it's not really a good time for him, the truth is that he has absolutely no talent at defusing bombs and is a bit of a klutz. Upon arriving at the scene, he has to deal with the hyperaggressive Julia (Robyn Grahn), who wants an immediate resolution of the problem, and Sam (David Cramer), an older man Tom regards as a mentor.

Robyn Grahn, Liam Vincent, Nicole Apostol Bruno, and David Cramer
in a scene from Mission: Ambivalent (Photo by:

Not only is Sam revealed to be the mad bomber, he's also a totally ineffectual villain who forgot that if his bomb explodes while he's still in the room, he will effectively be committing suicide. Mission Ambivalent offers a painful reminder of how easily incompetence can sabotage careful planning (in the White House as well as in a 10-minute play). Here's the trailer:

In Sang S. Kim's Explicit Content, Matthew (Liam Vincent) and his father, Abner (David Cramer), are about to meet with some marketing consultants whose goal is to broaden their firm's clientele. At first, Abner insists that he doesn't want to do any talking and will leave everything up to Matthew. But as soon as three liberated women enter the room, the audience can almost see the steam coming out of Abner's ears.

Abner has spent most of his life using words like "bitch" to refer to any woman who crosses his path. As much as he hates having to deal with an aggressive woman like Helen (Nancy French), he's even more shocked when she starts treating him the way he treats her. While Abner may be horrified by Helen's plans to ignore his company's loyal customer base, something much deeper is stoking his anger.

Helen (Nancy French) locks horns with Abner (David Cramer)
in a scene from Explicit Language (Photo by:

When Helen asks what he really wants to get from their meeting, Abner crumbles and admits that his son and daughter-in-law have forbidden him from having any contact with their children because of the way he talks. Family means everything to him and he's willing to do anything to get his grandchildren back in his life.

That gives Helen the ammunition she needs to help set some goals which can bring the company -- and Abner -- into the 21st century. With Morgan J. Booker appearing as Helen's assistant, Amanda, and Nicole Apostol Bruno's Louise taking notes on a computer, director Christian Haines has fun with the playwright's winning gimmick. Each time Helen or Abner uses an offensive term which Louise's word processing software does not allow, the computer noisily bleeps it out. As they discover terms which, surprisingly, pass muster with the software, their creative juices begin to flow with a vengeance. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
One could never accuse Del Shores of failing to make the most of his good luck. When a small play he wrote in 1996 had its world premiere in Los Angeles, Sordid Lives quickly became a cult phenomenon.

Although Del Shores and Leslie Jordan have each toured shows in which they talk at length about their experiences with Sordid Lives, until this month, the original play had never been performed in San Francisco. Thanks to Ed Decker (the artistic director of New Conservatory Theatre Center), that crime against local gay history has finally been rectified.

Cat Luedtke, Michaela Greeley, and Marie O'Donnell
in a scene from Sordid Lives (Photo by: Lois Tema)

NCTC recently unveiled a new production of Sordid Lives before an adoring opening night audience. The performance was of particular interest to me because my first exposure to the Sordid Lives phenomenon had been a severe letdown. I was visiting someone in Long Beach and had read that the film was being screened at a small theatre that specialized in independent films. There may have been eight customers attending the Saturday night screening and their confused lack of enthusiasm could not be ignored.

The barroom scene from Sordid Lives (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Thankfully, that was not the case at NCTC. With the film, the TV series, and his one-man show entitled Del Shores: My Sordid Life all available on DVD, what was once a cult phenomenon has become a thriving franchise. As a result, the misadventures of the highly dysfunctional denizens of Winters, Texas have become the White trash equivalent of high art, effectively pushing the residents of Greater Tuna off the map.

What quickly becomes apparent is how much Sordid Lives gains by being performed in front of a live audience that can respond to all the unscripted pieces of business. Each double take, eye roll, and pregnant pause (as one character prepares to lob a truth bomb in another character's direction) gets the appreciation it sorely deserves. Every sigh from a wounded ego and vicious insult delivered with seething hatred elicits hoots of loving laughter from the audience.

Melissa O'Keefe and Scott Cox in a scene from Sordid Lives
(Photo by: Lois Tema)

With the passage of time, references to Thelma and Louise have become juicier than ever. Perhaps most interesting is the fact that the critical role of Brother Boy (which has been as tightly linked to Leslie Jordan as Dolly Levi was to Carol Channing) stands on its own as a powerhouse opportunity for someone with strong comic skills. Scott Cox made it his own with riotous results, leaving the audience in stitches.

Sordid Lives is structured as a series of flashbacks in which each vignette is introduced by Luke Brady as Ty Williamson, a closeted gay actor working in New York City who is terrified at the thought of returning to his home town in Texas for his mother's funeral. His fears, however, are nothing compared to the shenanigans taking place in the office of Dr. Eve Bolinger (Melissa O'Keefe) as she tries to "dehomosexualize" Earl "Brother Boy" Ingram (Scott Cox).

Melissa O'Keefe, Scott Cox, and Robin Gabrielli in
a scene from Sordid Lives (Photo by: Lois Tema)

With scenic design by Kuo-Hao Lo, costumes by Wes Crain, lighting by Maxx Kurzunski, and sound design by Ryan Lee Short, Dennis Lickteig has directed his cast with appropriately raucous levels of distress, despair, and discontent. Shannon Kase is a bundle of energy as Noleta Nethercott with Gary M. Giurbino standing as strongly as possible on G.W. Nethercott's two wooden legs. Nathan Tylutki has some very funny moments as Odell Owens (who can't stop playing cat's cradle) and the Reverend who presides over the funeral of a family matriarch who came to an untimely end in a sleazy motel.

While Cat Luedtke and Marie O'Donnell fight it out as the decedent's two daughters, LaVonda and Latrelle, Michaela Greeley struggles to avoid taking sides with either woman while making a futile attempt to give up smoking. Robin Gabrielli and Amy Meyers are the more rational souls as bartender Wardell "Bubba" Owens and Bitsy Mae Harling.

The funeral scene from Sordid Lives (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Performances of Sordid Lives continue through June 24 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center (click here for tickets). If the political landscape has got you down, this production is guaranteed to lift your spirits. Here's the trailer:

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