Tuesday December 4, 2001

Sex talk at a filling station

by Robert Dominguez

Although billed as a drama, "True Love" isn't so much a straight play as an eye-popping, multi-character performance piece.

Yet much of the show's appeal lies in its amazing set design - and a great, intimate theater space to house all the bizarre action.

"True Love" is the second in a trilogy of Charles L. Mee plays this season that explore the battle between men and women over love and sex. "First Love," about an elderly couple's affair, ran in September; "Big Love," based on Aeschylus' "The Suppliant Women," opens later this month at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Mee again borrows from the Greeks with "True Love." It's a loose adaptation of Euripedes' "Hippolytus," in which a queen seduces her stepson while the king's away. Mee sets his tale in a seedy gas station populated by characters out of a daytime talk show.

Stepmother Polly (Laurie Williams), a sexy blond in a slinky blue cocktail dress, lusts after 14-year-old Edward (Jeremiah Miller). The tension between the two sparks a series of true sexual confessions from the denizens of the garage, mostly in monologue.

A neurotic (Laura Esterman) discusses her love life in a call to a radio station; a portly woman (Jayne Houdyshell) says she likes rough sex; an accordion-playing transvestite hairdresser (Paul Mullins) grills an 11-year-old girl (Halley Wegryn Gross) on her sexual experience, and a mechanic (Dallas Roberts) practices "autoeroticism" with jumper cables.

The expositions vary from ponderous to profane and some are quite funny. But Jim, a station attendant played by Christopher McCann, provides the most uncomfortable moment - a detailed account of molesting his 3-year-old daughter.

As the tortured, frustrated Polly, Williams deftly exoses her character's emotions - and her body. An erotic, post-coital slow dance with Edward sets the scene for the return of Polly's husband (Roy Thinnes). But the violent climax is as forced as some of the sexually charged speeches.

Occasionally, a four-piece rock band hanging out in the garage backs characters who break out in song. A member of the audience is brought onstage to toss a cream pie at an actor's privates. There's a live chicken, too.

Daniel Fish's energetic staging keeps things moving, but all the manic goings-on only serve to disguise Mee's thin story. Christine Jones' set is a detailed facsimile of a filthy garage, with gas pumps, power tools, shelves of oil cans and assorted car parts and an actual '73 Dodge Dart.

The theater, the Zipper, a recently converted zipper factory, was tailored for the show - the audience watches from car seats.