Dear John

There's a nefarious Hollywood influence that's made its way into theatrical press releases: the use of "pitch-speak," where a 90-minute show is reduced to a description that meshes two disparate pop-culture reference points. The use of phrases like "this show is History Boys meets Starlight Express," while effective at piquing the interest of theatergoers and critics, usually carries with it the implication that the production in question is not worthy of the reputation of either of the referenced works. In an ideal synergy of show and space, the Asteroid B612 Theater Company is presenting Hustler, WI at Chashama @ 217. The theater's entrance is right on 42nd Street, and the play's three characters (a prostitute, a john, and a pimp) look as if they could have wandered in from a pre-Giuliani Times Square. In lieu of cast or crew bios, the promotional materials include a line about how the play was "inspired by" Taxi Driver, among other gritty 1970's films. But instead of De Niro and Scorsese, the show delivers wan characterizations and a muddled script.

Blond streetwalker Kiki advertises her wares to the strains of a lewd club mix. She is approached by Clarence, an awkward young man hidden behind an orange cap, sunglasses, and trench coat. He has trouble speaking to her, especially when she tries not so subtly to arrange a date.

Once he manages to ask Kiki about herself, she turns cold, and her pimp, Bags (resplendent in a powder-blue leisure suit, silk shirt, and white shoes), comes over to handle the situation. Clarence explains that he's fascinated by their lifestyle and that he wants to be a pimp. He's chased away but soon finds Kiki and Bags in his apartment and in his life—for better, but mostly for worse.

Writer/director Michael Scott-Price's plot is clearly set up for Clarence to be the protagonist, Kiki the love interest, and Bags the antagonist. But the story isn't always told from Clarence's point of view. After the first scene, there are a few, quick, back-story-heavy monologues from him and Kiki, which disrupt the play's flow and seem incongruous. (Usually monologues are employed as a recurring device, not a one-off insertion of exposition.) One scene devolves midway into a pimp stand-up routine, and while it gets laughs, it compromises the production's integrity.

The piece's lack of shape extends to the direction as well; Scott-Price the director hasn't improved upon Scott-Price the writer's work. While Mike Keller, as Bags, pulls off a showy and complete performance, his fellow cast members do not fare so well. As Kiki, Ali Stover sells the audience on her sexuality and toughness, but she doesn't put over the drama as well. Besides her physical attractiveness, it's unclear what makes Bags and Clarence so protective of her.

Anthony D. Stevenson (Clarence) has the toughest challenge as the addled ex-serviceman. It takes a long time for his military past to come out, and even longer for the audience to realize that it's taken a toll on his psyche. (In the Vietnam era, a young guy in fatigues in the U.S. was assumed to have post-traumatic stress disorder.) Until then he's just a strange-acting guy who is not sympathetic or compelling enough to think much about. Instead of being cryptic, the character comes off as confusing. But then the press release's nod to Taxi Driver challenges this early-career actor to fill De Niro-sized shoes.

According to Asteroid B612's mission statement, the company intends to "operate more like a rock band than a theater company in terms of schedule." Maybe this rock 'n' roll aesthetic that it's chasing has led Asteroid B612 to its hip movie tie-in, anti-bio program. But rather than let the show speak for itself, this tactic only makes a curious audience member look at the program and the show more closely, and less favorably.

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