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A CurtainUp Review
Adult Entertainment
You have to be really good to steal something great
---Gerry, the Yale-educated director whose ideas for a Merchant-Ivory style porn film backfires when his acting company, smitten by the classics he's told them to read, suddenly want to be "real" actors in a "real classic."
(top) Eric Elice as Jimbo J, Mary Birdsong as Vixen Fox. (bottom) Linda Halaska as Heidi-the-Ho and Jeannie Berlin as Frosty Moons, Danny Aiello as Guy Akens.
(Photo: Nancy Ellison)
Elaine May's comedy promises much -- a noted film director, Stanley Donen, a sextet of actors that includes Danny Aliello and May's daughter Jeannie Berlin, a satire that relies on the subterranean strata of the porn film culture for its insights and laughs. If Adult Entertainment were a short one-acter within a trilogy -- like Power Plays, her terrific 1998 collaboration with Alan Arkin-- it might indeed deliver on its promise. Since Ms. May and the eight producers backing her have opted to go full length, the result comes closer to her last play, Taller Than a Dwarf, (2000) which ran for just 53 performances. Despite some quite funny business in act one, it's a one joke play which at two hours plus intermission adds up to an unendurably long, only slightly naughty sitcom.

The idea is to showcase May's talent for comic satire with a new take on porno movies and those involved in making them. To set the scene, there's a large TV screen, its background appropriately blue. This takes us to the first and funniest visit to an adult public access show whose hostess, Heidi-the-Ho (Linda Halaska), has invited a group of actors to pay tribute to one of their recently deceased employers, the porn producer Marty Akens.

The trio of actors, whose collective intellect would fit into a walnut shell, include Frosty Moons (Jeannie Berlin), Vixen Fox (Mary Birdsong) and gay, stud whose name, Jimbo J (Eric Elice), aptly rhymes with bimbo. Also on hand is Akens' brother Guy (Danny Aiello), who has inherited Marty's garage studio and shooting equipment but little in the way of bankable assets.

That scene shifts to a strategy meeting in which the actors, tired of being hired hands decide to risk their salaries and work with Guy for a share of the profits in an independently made XXX movie. But not to worry-- there will be many returns (too many!) to Heidi-the-Ho's show with the porn stars strutting their stuff.

May's satiric twist is to have the raised entrepreneurial instinct also seed the urge to act in something just a little more elevated (think the first mainstream X-film, Deep Throat). Since Frosty Moons has already had a fling as a network TV show character named Melissa, the idea for rising from the bottom of the cultural heap is to make the now somewhat timeworn Melissa the central character of their film.

Stumbling clumsily into his brother's shoes, Guy writes a script that understandably underwhelms the actors. This prompts Heidi-the-Ho to suggest that they bring in a new writer and director. Being the kind of person who doesn't just make suggestions, she has an available candidate for the job in the person of her video cameraman Gerry DiMarco (Brandon Dermery). The underachieving Yale graduate turns into a combination of Professor Higgins and Svengali.

The ambitious new director proposes to lift their film to the porno pinnacle by giving it a Merchant-Ivory touch. To prepare the cast (which now includes Aiello) for their roles he has them cut down on their drug use read all sorts of classics -- Greek myths, The Jew of Malta and Flaubert as well as modern classics like Our Town and Death of a Salesman. The trouble is that once the actors get hooked on books, they reject Gerry's script as not living up to what they've read and he walks out in a huff. That leaves the rest of the play to concentrate on how to get him back to make their "classic."

I'll admit that I had a few chuckles at the cast's growing love affair with literature and metaphor, but there's not enough here to sustain two hours, and the temporary shift into a serious mode at the top of the second act simply doesn't work. The actors play their parts well. Aiello who, with Berlin (her nasal monotone reminiscent of her mothers hilarious skits with Mike Nichols), has star billing does his best with a thankless role.

Neil Patel, a consistently excellent designer, has created a variety of nicely detailed sets but that large downstage screen makes for somewhat awkward back and forth shifts. If there were a Vogue for porn fashions, Suzy Benzinger's costumes would warrant a spread. Too bad that none of this has helped director Stanley Donen to save Adult Entertainment from failing to fully live up to the second word of its title.

Taller Than a Dwarf
Power Plays

Written by Elaine May
Directed by Stanley Donen
Cast: Danny Aiello (Guy Akens), Jeannie Berlin (Frosty Moons), Mary Birdsong (Vixen Fox), Brandon Demery (Gerry DiMarco), Eric Elice (Jimbo J) and Linda Halaska (Heidi-the-Ho).
Set Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: Suzy Benzinger
Lighting Design: Phil Monat
Sound Design: T. Richard Fitzgerald.
Running time: 2 hours plus h 1-15 minute intermission.
Variety Arts Theatre
110 Third Avenue (below 14th Street)212-239-6200
From 11/16/02 with a 12/11/02 opening.
Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8 PM, with matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 PM, Sundays at 3 PM. -- $25-65
.Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 12/08 press preview.
Closing April 13, 2003
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