The wry wit of playwright Douglas Carter Beane has sociopolitically wrapped itself around taboo love, celebrity closeting, and Olivia Newton-John, all with a bemused eye toward the way showbiz makes people misbehave in frantic yet mirthy ways.
And now, Beane is taking on the gossip world with his comedy Mr. and Mrs. Fitch, previewing at Second Stage Theatre en route to a February 22 opening. In the play, John Lithgow and Jennifer Ehle are married columnists who, in desperation, create fictional celebrities that turn out to become bigger than a lot of real ones who only seem fake. As a single columnist who usually sticks to actual truths, I tried to fish some out of Mr. Beane on the phone the other day:
Me: Hi, Douglas. What’s your connection with the gossip community, as it were?
Beane: When I was doing The Little Dog Laughed, we wanted Liz Smith to do the voiceover. I went to her apartment. I loved how homespun it all was! In your mind, it’s going to be very noir, with blindshades across people’s faces and lots of cigarettes.
Me: And where do I fit into this?
Beane: When I was just a child in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, I worked in a “fern bar” called RJ Willoughby’s—with tile ceilings and ferns everywhere—and I’d read the column by you, and my female friend and co-waitron would say, “I’m gonna go to New York and meet this Michael Musto. He’d be a perfect husband.” I’d say, “Honey, this doesn’t bode well.”
Me: Not a very intuitive person.
Beane: She was in love with the quip.
Me: But back to a better-suited couple: Mr. and Mrs. Fitch.
Beane: I wanted to write something where a man and a woman had an equal amount of lines. People always say, “Oh, those chatty Beane women.” “Well, I’ll show you!”
Me: Is the theme how distortions become accepted as reality thanks to our murky media landscape?
Beane: The kindest way to say it is the democratization of the truth. Whatever the most people believe in, that’s what goes. There is something called truth, and you have to own up to it, “but we voted!”
Me: Give me an example.
Beane: When someone in a chatroom can say, “I went to the first preview of a Kenny Lonergan play, and Matthew Broderick is not off-book” and that ends up on the first page of the Times, that’s crazy. It’s in previews! Kenny rewrites during curtain calls!
Me: Are you relieved to be doing this play Off-Broadway—like Lonergan did—where there’s a little less pressure than on Broadway?
Beane: Second Stage is a great place to create. You don’t have somebody coming in and fucking you up: “My wife doesn’t like the leading lady’s shoes.” Crazy commercial producer talk. You just put on a show!
Me: Well, Xanadu went to Broadway, and it was hilarious, though it got strangely shut out at the Tonys. Were you suicidal?
Beane: If you do it for awards, money, or acclaim, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. I do it because I have things to say and I want to work with great people. And Xanadu is on tour and making me money. It’s wowing in Seattle! People are throwing on their flannel and going to the theater in droves! [Laughs.] But I was really mad at Tom Stoppard, that prick.
Me: And now you’re working on Give It Up!, a modern take on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, which sounds a little bit like your answer to Glee.
Beane: It’s very Glee. It’s like, “What if the people who wrote High School Musical were intelligent? What if they were gifted?” I’m joking. I’ve never seen High School Musical.
Me: I lived it! Anyway, tell me about the show.
Beane: It’s pretty frickin’ amazing. A pop Britney Spears/Lady Gaga score and cheerleaders and basketball players. The cheerleaders are cock teases and the basketball players end up going to a whorehouse. In Texas, that’s entertainment.
Roasted Bar Nuts
Rather than create a dazzling bunch of fictional celebrities, let me tell you about some actual ones I ran into—like roaster extraordinaire Jeffrey Ross, who was grilled onstage at the Friars Club last week by comic Judy Gold. (Why those two? “They’re both Jewish, and they both like girls,” we were informed in typical Friars manner.) Gold started by asking Ross if he’d ever turned down a roast, and he replied, “Mike Tyson! I feel like you have to have love and admiration for those you roast, and he didn’t deserve it. It’s hard to like a cannibal and convicted rapist!” For similar reasons, I guess, Ross once refused to roast the cast of The Hills.
Did he ever do a roast and regret what he said? “I remember making fun of Farrah Fawcett,” admitted Ross, mortified. “They were jokes about her being old and ugly. But she got there, and she was beautiful! I did the jokes and regretted it immediately.”
But usually, Ross scores big-time, like when he deadpanned to roastee Hugh Hefner, “I admire your work. I just want to shake your dick!” (though the comic said Hef’s favorite joke from that whole night was the one about a rival pornographer: “We were going to roast Larry Flynt, but no one wanted to build a ramp.”)
Before the end of the affair, Ross left me with a joke of my own: “I just saw Precious in 3-D. Bitch reached down and ate my popcorn.” In Times Square, that’s entertainment.
Long-running performance artist Penny Arcade—another real celebrity—had her own fun with Hef at her Bad Reputation book party at (le) poisson rouge that night. In a stage monologue performed to an adoring throng, Arcade swore that the Barbie doll was the role model for the Playboy centerfold, and when the magazine started doing lesbian spreads, that was only because a lot of imaginative girls out there had more than one Barbie. “Mattel didn’t make Ken till later,” asserted Arcade. “They only made Ken to take the heat off Midge.” Actually, Ken came first, but I’m pretty sure it was a pre-emptive strike.
Human Ken dolls populated the Men Event, the fortnightly gay mixer that brought us last week’s “Jockathon” at the normally more hetero-athletic Dave & Buster’s on 42nd Street. The swarms of gays that showed up wore identifying stickers (“Producer” seemed to be the most popular choice) and fielded pitches from bowling leagues, cheerleaders (a/k/a cock teases), and reps for a Broadway workout that has you invigoratingly dancing to AIDS ballads from Rent. Best of all was the guy who scrambled up to me and said, “Go to the booth in the corner. You sign up to get injected with a free HIV vaccine, and you get a free yo-yo!”
That sounded utterly delightful, but there was another party on my plate—namely BonBon, the Tuesday night Susanne Bartsch/Kenny Kenny bash where every surface sparkles, including people’s faces. The event (at a West 21st Street club called Juliet) is an experiment in freaky glitz, and the flashy people match the shiny walls, ceilings, and strobe effects, a few of them crowding onto the mirrored platforms to dance in between posing for each others’ cameras and cell phones. By 1 a.m., the whole thing turns into a mammoth, orgiastic photo-op, and as you become part of it, you realize that it’s so much more fun to make yourself a star than to make other people stars.
But I do wish someone would create a sort of reverse Grindr that tells you when a troll is 10 feet away.