Potty mouths

Bad behavior gets rewarded — in different ways — in ‘Hesher’ and ‘Bridesmaids’

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JESUS, JOSEPH | Gordon-Levitt shirtless is a settling point of the dark comedy ‘Hersher.’

Fans of the F-word will hear as much of it dropped in Hesher and Bridesmaids — as in a five-minute conversation with the average teenager. It’s mostly spoken by men (especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in Hesher and by women in Bridesmaids, where producer Judd Apatow tries to show us that chicks can be as potty-mouthed as the dudes in his other movies.

Hesher (Gordon-Levitt) is kind of a guardian devil who follows adolescent T.J. (Devin Brochu) home and moves into his garage uninvited. T.J., his father (Rainn Wilson) and grandmother (Piper Laurie) are dealing with the death of T.J.’s mother two months before. Dad’s depression has made him a vegetable and granny does what she can with her failing health.

T.J. is also dealing with a bully at school — not because of his perceived orientation, just because the bully’s an asshole. He’s rescued from a fight by Nicole (Natalie Portman, who really needs to make more movies — we never see her anymore), a supermarket checker who is later helped out of a bad situation by Hesher.

All you really need to know about Hesher is that Gordon-Levitt goes through most of it without a shirt on, even though he has scruffy Jesus hair, chain-smokes and wreaks havoc (sometimes with positive results) wherever he goes. If you need more, it’s an off-the-wall dark comedy that bodes well for first-feature director and co-writer Spencer Susser, with a strong cast doing good work.

Hesher could be called a feel-good movie about grief, and it makes about as much sense as that description, but don’t let that scare you away.

Bridesmaids, by contrast, is more run-of-the-mill, a series of sketches with the same characters, moving toward a wedding. Maya Rudolph plays Lillian, the bride-to-be, but the main character is her maid of honor, Annie (Apatow veteran Kristen Wiig, who also co-wrote the screenplay). Wiig is great at self-deprecating humor, humiliating herself in one situation after another, but eventually you may start to feel as I did that Annie doesn’t deserve anything better from life than she’s getting.

Melissa McCarthy (Mike & Molly), acting dykey though not lesbian, steals scene after scene until she just about steals the movie. Rose Byrne is good as Annie’s nemesis and Chris O’Dowd provides welcome masculine relief as a hot cop who brings romantic potential into Annie’s life. Jon Hamm gets shirtless in an uncredited minor role and Matt Lucas, the gay half of Little Britain, plays one of Annie’s abusive roommates. Ho-hum.

You’ve seen just about everything in Bridesmaids before, but now it has more bathroom and bedroom humor.
— Steve Warren

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 13, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Stage Reviews: DTC’s ‘Arsenic & Old Lace,’ Uptown Players’ ‘Thank You for Being a Friend’

THINGS TO DO WITH A BANANA | Coarse but funny, ‘Thank You for Being a Friend’ forces its humor down your throat. There are worse things it could force down your throat.

Broad comedy

Pick your poison: Camp in sitcomland or two B’way pros hamming it up. Either way, you win

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

There are two sets of Golden Girls trodding the boards this week — though of very different ilks.

In one corner, Dallas Theater Center’s star-powered Arsenic & Old Lace (with Broadway vets Tovah Feldshuh and Betty Buckley) turns the chestnut-roasted Depression-Era dark comedy into a hilariously overplayed farce. At the same time, Uptown Players, the usual Kalita residents, have hightailed it into the Rose Room for Thank You for Being a Friend, another of their drag-based parodies, this time skewering The Golden Girls.

On the surface, the two shows have little in common. For one, Arsenic is actually well-written. Joseph Kesselring’s play has become such an institution, it’s easy to forget how subversive and smart it can be even as it revels in a gimmick: That two sweet ol’ ladies are actually well-intentioned serial killers of lonely widowers. (Dexter owes it a huge debt.) Thank You is nowhere close to that in its construction. Its vulgarity can be acute even for the most adult tastes. (Bea, Rue and Estelle are probably rolling over in their graves; it might send Betty to hers.)

But they do share a lot, to wit: Masterful comic timing and the ability to take the material — about post-menopausal broads — into fun recesses of your humor cortex.

Feldshuh and Buckley play off each other nicely as sisters Abby and Martha, who slip poison into the elderberry wine of pensioners who have no family. Their nephew Mortimer (Lee Trull, rubbery and perpetually astonished) discovers their, umm, “personal business” and tries to work out a way to stop them and keep them from the gas chamber.

Feldshuh, responsible for more mugging than Central Park on New Year’s Eve, has a pixieish energy that’s impossible not to get caught up in, and Buckley’s dotty cluelessness is a hoot. They are matched for comic clarity by Nehal Joshi as a quack doctor and the impressively imposing Jason Douglas as a Karloff-like villain.

But as much as the cast, the real star is Anna Louizos’ magnificent set, a rotating behemoth of Addams Family formidability that is practically its own character. That makes three grandes dames who deserve a bow.

There are four ladies vying for attention in Thank You; we’ll call that one a draw as well. Riffing on Golden Girls — renamed Dorothea (a basso profundo Lon D. Barrera, who still doesn’t sound butch enough … kidding), Roz (Chris Robinson), Blanchet (Michael D. Moore) and Sophie (John de los Santos) — it’s a trifle sitcom plot about a “girls vs. the gays” talent competition against Lance Bass (Drew Kelly), crammed full of more sex jokes than you could shake a stick at. (There’s one they can use.)

Crass? Most definitely. But also surprisingly hilarious. It helps that the production is staged inside a gay bar, where the audience seems primed to have a camptastic time. But honestly, it’s the cast that elevates the material with fearless performances (how do they keep referring to their singing group, Vaginal Discharge, without cracking up?) and loads of stage business that overcomes the script’s many weaknesses.

Director B.J. Cleveland gives the parody elements (showtunes, Beyonce videos, Joan Crawford) their due and let’s everyone have fun with it. High art? Only if you toke one up beforehand. I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t, but it’s not necessary. The laughs here are golden, girl.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 18, 2011.

—  John Wright

Stage reviews: ‘Inishmore,’ ‘Death Is No Small Change!’

TERRORIST AT WORK  |  A cruel Irishman (Matt Moore, right) plies his trade on a drug pusher (Matt Tolbert) in ‘The Lieutenant of Inishmore.’ (Photo by Mark Oristano)

Pussy gore-lore

‘Inishmore’ makes cat torture funny; Pegasus mounts a colorful black & white play

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  |  Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

The Lieutenant of Inishmore is a horror-comedy about a dead cat and a terrorist, which sounds neither horrific nor comedic, and that’s sort of the idea. An unbalanced 20-year-old lad named Padraic (Matt Moore), who was drummed out of the Irish Republican Army for being too cruel, learns his boyhood cat, Wee Thomas, is ill and rushes home to see him.

Wee Thomas isn’t actually ill, though — he’s already had his brains smashed out before the play begins, and his father (Jason C. Kane) and skittish local boy Davey (Tony Daussat), who may have done the deed, are just trying to let Padraic down easy. Because if Padraic finds out what really happened … well, that’s a road best not traveled.

This is playwright Martin McDonagh’s bloodiest dark comedy, a gorefest that has more exploding, gooey brains and missing eyeballs than a Freddy Kruger film. It would be even more disgusting if it weren’t so funny.

But this production could be funnier. Daussat in particular is an unmined vein of comic gold. Davey, the long-haired, hyperbolic, possibly gay town idiot cannot be ratcheted up too high on the hysterical meter. He needs to come out like a Roman candle, befuddled but frantic, but Daussat never achieves that level. I’ve also heard a more authentic accent in Irish Spring ads (or, for that matter, family reunions).

By the second act, the show hits its rhythm: Not only does a crew of terrorist rivals (Clay Yocum, Evan Fuller, Ian Ferguson) add energy and better brogues to the mix, but the bloodletting rises to horrendous levels (by the end, actress Kayla Carlyle looks like she’s just come from Carrie’s high school prom). Director Terry Martin and special effects whiz Steve Tolin don’t shy from the excess, which is where this play really succeeds. McDonagh’s genius is being entertaining and disgusting at the same time. Who doesn’t wanna meet that challenge?

The selling point of Pegasus Theatre’s “black & white plays” has always been their black & whiteness — a masterful effect that makes everything onstage appear grey, as if from a 1940s B-movie. Each new play deals with famed but bumbling private eye Harry Hunsacker (Pegasus founder and playwright Kurt Kleinmann), the Mr. Magoo of crime solving who loveably stumbled on the solution with the help of his “best friend and paid by the hour assistant Nigel” (Ben Bryant). The mysteries — convoluted potboilers that do keep you guessing — are usually hit-and-miss affairs, rising and falling on the jokes and casts.

It’s ironic, then, that the b&w effect the night I saw the latest, Death Is No Small Change!, it had some flaws (a blue light from a Tesla coil, a few patches of uncovered skin) but the production itself was just dandy. Director Susan Sargeant keeps up a brisk pace (until the inevitably talky explanation), and stages the comings and goings smoothly.

This is probably Kleinmann’s best play, with surprisingly strong characters for a melodrama, performed nicely by the actors (many of them Pegasus vets): The ghoulish butler Sebastian (hysterically overplayed by David Benn with Karloffian creepiness) and the mad scientist (given Shakespearean bravado by Mario Cabrera) are especial standouts, getting into its William Castle-like “spooky mansion” ethos. They turn it into something Pegasus shows usually aren’t: Colorful.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Jan. 14, 2011.

—  John Wright