There's No Winking in Hell
I'm in hell. There's a nice blonde girl handing out powdered white doughnuts, a hokey band singing Christian songs on a stage with a glowing white cross, and a strangely happy guy grinning ear-to-ear as he claps awkwardly in time to the music. In the corner, there's a giant photo of Jesus that says, "Pin the Sin on Jesus."
OK, it's not really hell. It's just the final room in the new Off-Broadway production of Hell House, the fundamentalist Christian "haunted house" dreamed up by Pastor Keenan Roberts to scare people out of committing the holy sins of having sex and having fun (not to mention being gay and going to raves). The last room is actually the "good" room where you commit to Jesus, but for me, a reformed Catholicturned-atheist, nothing could be more chilling than a life given over to vanilla boredom and unrelenting optimism. Total suck.
I was there with the Doublemint twins Andrew Andrew (both homosexual sinners), who led a group of friends to the Hell House site at St. Ann's Warehouse (running till October 29) as part of their frequent Seven O'Clock Club gatherings, which they've held the first Tuesday of the month on and off for a few years. Anywhere from five to 50 friends show up for the club, and since the Andrews' friends come from a wide cross section of art, design, fashion, and music interests, they end up providing a networking hangout of sorts. "It's a wonderful way for us to introduce people in different fields," said one of the Andrews (don't ask me which one) afterward. "The point of it is for us to socialize unprofessionally. We spend so much of our lives socializing professionally; with this it didn't matter if two people showed up. There's no pressure."
We'd met up earlier at the Toy Room on Norfolk Street, the semi-secret bar, modeled after a Prohibition-era speakeasy, that serves alcoholic beverages in teacups. The boys held court with drag divas Brenda A. Gogo and Brandy Wine in their boy drag. The Andrews wore exact matching outfits as usuallight-blue button-up shirts, ascots, and long, wavy blond hair with duplicate highlightsand sipped from their delicate porcelain cups. One Andrew presented Brandy Wine with a bag of Brandywine Battlefield paraphernaliaincluding Post-It notes and a baseball hat imprinted with the Brandywine Revolutionary-era flag. Apparently the boys had just been in Phillywhere they DJ'd at a party for, as Andrew explained, "really nice WASPs"and came across the state park where the longest single-day battle of the Revolutionary War occurred. Upon receiving her gift, Brandy Wine (a/k/a Michael Torres) quipped, "Did you see any Amish?" Oh no, she didn't.
All lit up with brandy and wine, we headed to St. Ann's to get scared by some right-wing fundamentalism put on by left-wing liberalsthe theater company Les Freres Corbusier, whose dramaturge is Voice critic Alexis Soloski. Like the original Hell House, their version has several rooms meant to scare you to Jesus, like the Rape at the Rave room, in which a girl goes to her first rave, takes some unknown drug, and is raped by an entire room of ravers. (The accuracy was astonishing!) The other rooms were equally disturbing: a gay marriage that ends when one lover dies of AIDS (presided over by a Jewish doctornice touch); a teenager who starts off innocently reading Harry Potter books, devolves into Dungeons and Dragons, and commits a Columbine-style school shooting; and a cheerleader who gets a bloody late-term abortion during which they use a crude vacuum cleaner to clear her out.
"Abortion Girl," played by Julie Klausner, comedienne and creator of the super-genius Internet TV short Cat News, is obviously damned to hell since she's Jewish. Her portrayallike all the others in the 40-plus-person castwas irony-free. Indeed, the actors in the final room's Christian dance party are so eerily perfect that they left one of our friends, who grew up going to Bible camps in the South, questioning whether or not they were actual Christians or hipsters posing as Christians.
"We try not to be winky," Klausner says. "We get notes if we're too winky."
They passed the no-winky test when original Hell House mastermind Pastor Keenan Roberts visited during previews week and gave his thumbs-up. Roberts is a youth pastor, so he's "the Colorado Christian version of cool," says Klausner, who described the pastor as sporting a goatee and an untucked button-down shirt. That the Les Freres Corbusier cast members weren't all Christians didn't seem to matter to him. "I think he believes if the message is intact that it'll reach people," she says.
Surprisingly, the production is raising the ire of liberals. Klausner says that an editor at one of the city's gay listings magazines was upset that the production was even being put on; she's also heard a rumor that a group from NYU is planning a protest. "It would be amazing if we had left-wing and right-wing protesters at the same time on either side of the street," she says.
The question of whether or not the actors were for real was answered at the Water Street Bar after-party next door: Everyone was drinking (sinners repent!), and someone observed, "I think Jesus is gay." And if the signs on the "Pin the Sin on Jesus" board were any indication, the Hell House audience was also a bunch of heathens, who posted notes such as, "Me likey the buttlove," "I thought the rave looked fun," and "I subscribe to The New Yorker."
Speaking of, the Christian hoedown was only slightly less squeaky-clean than the crowd at the New Yorker Festival's New Yorker Dance Party (four words I never thought I'd see together) at T New York October 6, hosted by the magazine's pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones and featuring German DJ Michael Mayer. If you ever wondered what the crowd at a New Yorker dance party would be like, it was a bunch of people who look like they read The New Yorker, dancing. Mike Rubin, dance music enthusiast and homebound writer, asked me, "Is this what [upscale bottle-service lounge] Lotus is like?" (No.)
The New Yorkers boogied down proper for Mr. Mayer, who is starting to resemble a minimal-techno DJ less and less and a trance DJ more and more. Another critic, Andy Battaglia, pointed out that us dance music dorks were the ones standing dourly in the corner while the pointy-headed people danced. Point taken.
The next night we joined the New Yorkers for " PJ Harvey Talks With Hilton Als: A Conversation." Als asked some important musical questions, but when he played snippets of songs by some of PJ's favorite artists, she started to dish. We learned that Björk is a hyperactive spaz ("She has so much energy, I feel like I'm on coffee all day"), and that she and collaborator Tricky walk everywhere ("We're the only two people who walk in L.A."). And that Tricky is different than you and me. "He's in his own world," she said. "Tricky World."
The hour-long session went over its allotted time, which meant I had ample opportunity to cry uncontrollably at the sight of Polly Jean Harvey. I don't understand the reaction at all. I love her and would like to marry her and everything, but it's almost like a reflex muscle. Hilton would ask her a question, PJ would answer it, and I'd tear up. By the end of the Q&A, when she got down to business and started playing some tunesincluding two new ones that she wrote on a piano (a first for PJ) in addition to "Dry," "Man-Size," and the finale, "Water"I was a goner. Pass me the holy water and a Kleenex. I've been saved.
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