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Theater Wed Nov 26 2014

Strawdog's Desperate Dolls Gets Evil Wrong But Suspense Right

By Amien Essif

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Joe Mack and Hillary Marren. Photo by Tom McGrath.

One motel room is like another. It's a line that's threaded throughout Desperate Dolls, a new play by Darren Callahan that had its world premiere under the direction of Michael Driscoll at Strawdog Theatre on Monday. The point is certainly well made, considering the entire plot unfolds on a single set--a motel room, portrayed as several different motel rooms scattered around 1968 Hollywood, a time and place that is said to be composed entirely of motel rooms that all look alike and contain horror stories of their own.

Played confidently by Joe Mack, Sunny Jack's self-proclaimed "triple threat" status as director, producer, and writer has more to do with the size of his budget than the size of his talent. His foray into female-centric films is played up as well-intentioned, but if you respect women, this might not be a good enough excuse. Auditioning them for his B-movies in--you guessed it--a motel room, he signs three ambitious and curvaceous young "dolls" who also become his friends, with benefits not defined in their contracts.

The women--Matchbox (Alex Fisher), Pretty Sexy (Kelsey Shipley), and the Vil (Hillary Marren)--are no one's dolls, at least not when they arrive in the desperate city. But, just like their mentor and sometime exploiter Jack, they are outmatched by something darker than themselves. With one or two scruples they flirt with the pure grain evil that looms just beyond the flimsy door and the clamoring phone and won't be turned away by a Do Not Disturb door hanger.

It's a pretty good setup until you finally meet the villain, whose performance of evil requires a little boost from the audience's imagination. Jim Poole plays "Captain," a high-powered Hollywood agent who comes out of nowhere with a knack for mind control that certainly wasn't gleaned from How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Conveying an unsettling interest in Jack's perpetually underdressed clients, he is the Devil with a contract in hand, and the trope is laid on pretty thick. It's not so much Poole's fault as the fault of the writing. And it's not really the writer who is to blame so much as our collective Puritanical belief in diabolism, evil so evil that it could never have an explanation and therefore defies the actor's request for a motivation. That said, Poole conjures a Dracula type rather than the Hannibal Lecter that the plot begs for, grinding out muah-ha-has when he should have been smiling opaquely.

It's not just Captain who delivers lines that would have been better left unspoken. Desperate Dolls is propped up with a few "Wait, are you telling me...?" moments where the plot was already strong enough to stand on its own.

Nevertheless, some of the grimmer scenes are indeed grim. Chekhov famously said that if there's a gun on stage in act one, it has to be fired by the end of the story. But you'll have to see Desperate Dolls to find out if the same rule applies to hacksaws and hatchets.

Perhaps the most visceral achievement of the play is communicating the fear of suffocation by motel room that becomes a metaphor for the whole of Hollywood: The luxury of clean linens is immediately unmade by the first romp on the bed, which inevitably ends in disappointment at best, violation at worst, and always anxiety over the next phone call or knock at the door that could bring either stardom or the final nightmare.

Unless you have a clinical phobia of prefab lodgings, Desperate Dolls is worth seeing just for that insight.

Desperate Dolls, with an over-18 restriction, is being performed at Strawdog Theatre's Hugen Hall, 3829 N. Broadway, through December 23. Performances are Sundays at 12 and 8pm and Mondays and Tuesdays at 8pm. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online or by calling 866-811-4111.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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