No Laughing Matter

Theater LaB Houston is located at the end of Alamo Street, just off Houston Avenue close to downtown, on the edge of a mostly Hispanic neighborhood. At 7:30 on a Friday evening, in the middle of April, when most of the theatergoers are driving into the well-secured parking lot (a guard stands at the entrance, commanding each car how to park: "Take that spot at the end next to the blue Suburban and back in"), many of the neighbors are still outside enjoying the last of the tolerable days in Houston -- mowing lawns, pitching balls to kids, just sitting on their front-porch steps.

Usually all this means nothing more than that Theater LaB offers easier parking than almost any other theater in town. But after seeing the theater's latest offering -- Eating Raoul, the Musical -- the location struck me as painfully ironic.

And the production itself struck me as simply painful. I came away from the night sick at heart, and I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out why.

The musical, which screenwriter/playwright Paul Bartel converted from his 1982 film of the same name, concerns Paul and Mary Bland (Robert Ian Kislin and Julia Kay), a husband and wife who are as dull as their last name implies. They sleep in separate beds, behind a brown-striped curtain. They don't have sex. They dream (and sing -- a lot) about moving out of the city, into the country, and opening a small restaurant "far from pot and smack and coke / where ham is all that people smoke."

Unfortunately, they're flat broke, and stuck in L.A., or "La La Land," as the musical number goes, during the sexually free, anything-goes '70s. For some reason, they live in one of those wicked California complexes full of swingers, where they can't even get on the elevator without being propositioned for some sort of strange sexual act. (Yet another musical number: "Swing Swing Swing.") He's just been fired; she can't get a loan unless she does the loan officer. Things are tough.

Suddenly, a knock on the door. In walks one of those noisy, polyester-wearing perverts from down the hall. When he puts his slobbery move on Mary, Paul runs in from the kitchen and bops him on the head with a big black frying pan (sound effect included). The pig, named Howard Swine, dies. Paul and Mary discover a wad of cash in his pants and come up with a get-rich-quick scheme that involves ridding this sin city of all its boogie-night, party-animal perverts and pocketing their cash in the process.

Cool. Kinda like the Nazis, or the White Knights of the Aryan Race, or something.

I know, I know. This is a comedy, a satire, and it's all in good, fast-paced fun. Friday night's audience was laughing, practically howling in places. Julia Kay as Mary has a terrific voice and lots of energy on stage. Though Robert Ian Kislin is a little blander, he does suit the character. And a group of fine chorus members, who play such disparate characters as the buxom Donna the Dominatrix (Jennifer Savoy) and Ginger Rogers in drag (Frank York), come prancing out, twirling their skirts, moving in Rockettes-line precision, singing in key, with lots of enthusiasm.

So I'm thinking, jeez, I must be taking this all the wrong way. This isn't about those gay-bashers who swoop down on the "perverts" coming out of the gay bars in Montrose. What's my problem tonight?

Then Raoul (Jonathan McVay) entered, and before long, I was convinced there was no way and no how I was going to like anything about this musical. Ever.

Raoul is a caricature, as are all the characters in this little play; he is also a racial stereotype, the Latin lover. He rolls his R's, says "jez" for yes and "joo" for you. He wears black high-heeled boots, dreams of wearing Sergio Valente jeans, wants to lie on the beach with Charo, asks if Mary likes his new "yumpsuit" -- as in "jumpsuit," a polyester one that shows off his large Latin endowment. "Joo like it?" he asks, grabbing his crotch. He's also the building superintendent, and steals from the tenants. When Mary asks him to fix her door, he says, "Oh jes, sure," he can "feex the lock.... There's no need to panic, just call in joor favorite Hispanic."

Of course, true to stereotype, it takes Raoul, dressed only in his pencil-thin mustache and his silk leopard bikini briefs, to bring out the woman in Mary. In fact, Mary worries that if she "gives up her Mexican," she may "never have sex again."

Is this sort of thing still funny? I know that people still tell ethnic jokes, but I thought it happened behind closed doors, between Texaco corporate big-wigs and city council members, not right out in public, on stage. Somehow, white people telling jokes about Hispanics in the middle of a Hispanic neighborhood (in any neighborhood, for that matter) just doesn't seem all that funny to me.

Strangely, McVay may be the best performer in the show. He certainly seems to be having the most fun. When he finished his "Hot Monkey Love" song, a send-up of a bad Latin lounge act in which he gyrates his pelvis and grabs his crotch, many in the audience were practically rolling in the aisles.

So some people do find this kind of thing funny -- still. Though when I was driving home, past the now-dark houses on Alamo Street with the trees big and swoopy and the night so hushed, I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out why.

Eating Raoul, the Musical plays through May 23 at Theater LaB Houston, 1706 Alamo, 868-7516.