A Cathouse Divided

The cinema of the 1940's and '50's, with its schizophrenic blend of prurience and moral certitude, is perhaps the greatest boon to camp theater since cross-dressing. While pop culture remains the form's idiom of choice, sexuality and sincere emotion are two of camp's largest—and arguably its only—targets. Todd Michael's Vice Girl Confidential, a "film for the stage" now playing as part of the New York International Fringe Festival at the Cherry Lane Alternative, is no exception. With wig and ermine pulled snug, the author steps into camp's iconic high heels as Stella Duvall, matron of a high-class New York City brothel in 1942. When the murder of a once pure, Midwestern girl-turned-prostitute exposes a sex slavery ring, Duvall finds both the city's vice squad and the worst of its underworld knocking on her front door. Faced with losing her business—or worse—what's a girl to do but toss her head back, straighten her wig, and strike back with all the grande dame dignity she can muster?

Though the evening smacks heavily of the work of Charles Busch, Michael has a strong enough command of the form to look more like an admirer than an outright imitator. His largely able cast also helps to secure the necessary noir-ish tone, with noteworthy performances by Jeff Auer as Chief of Police Jim O'Roarke, Christopher Yustin as D.A. Walter Slade, and Johnny Calone as dim-bulb mob enforcer Trigger Martin—Of Mice and Men's Lennie gone bad, essentially.

As Stella tells Chief O'Roarke, "Jimmy, being in the indoor sporting business, I'm usually a good sport." The same might be said of theater and theatergoers. Though the otherwise twist-laden plot stumbles to a disappointingly benign conclusion in the final minutes, Vice Girl Confidential is a house of ill repute that's well worth the visit.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post