Susan L. Schwartz, the woman who brought Debbie Does Dallas to the New York International Fringe Festival, graduated from Cambridge University with a degree in Italian Literature. Her production features classically trained actors, some with their Equity cards, boasting Shakespeare and Chekhov credits in their bios. And one Ben Brantly (no relation!) has provided the show's sound design, which includes Bach's Sixth Cello Concerto. Would this team of individuals produce a play filled with sexual titillation and lowbrow humor without any loftier themes?
Well... maybe. But indulge, for a moment, the possibility of a greater mission. Debbie Does Dallas tells the tale of a young woman who has found her calling as an athletic team supporter. A prodigy in her field, she rises to the top of her profession at the age of 16 when she receives an invitation to join the Dallas Cowboys cheerleading squad. However, due to socio-economic limitations (i.e. she's broke), she and her friends cannot afford transportation to Texas.
How can these pre-adults raise enough money to fulfill their career goals? They form a business partnership, offering "Teen Services" like candle making, car washing, clothing removal, and oral gratification to the public. When their latter services become a hit, they find themselves in a moral dilemma: "Before we go any further," asks Debbie, "does everyone agree on this method of making extra money?" The group chimes in unison, "Yeah, sure!" But, since they're "good girls," these virgins vow not to have sex with their Johns--at least, not in the Clintonian sense.
Assume that "good" means independent, strong-willed, self-actualized: Debbie and her friends exhibit all of these qualities. They set a goal and approach it on their own terms. Even as they dictate the rules of the affairs, these pre-women dupe the men into thinking that they're in control. Besides being shrewd businesspeople, they exude a healthy, sex-positive attitude. For example, Lisa doesn't wear underwear because she wants to leave the world "just as I came in." Roberta pleasures herself with Mr. Hardwick's inventory of exotic candles. Donna learns new fellatio techniques "from the girls," suggesting their frank sexual dialogue.
The "girl power" of the group should come as no surprise: Maria Minestra, Debbie's author and the Betty Page of screenwriting, pioneered woman-on-top erotica (figuratively speaking) within an exclusive "boys club." The boys of Debbie are, almost without exception, either sleazy jocks or bumbling morons; Debbie and her friends, in comparison, are simple but cunning. Their token cheer ("One! Two! Three! Four! We're gonna make them beg for more!") rings prophetic as they realize their goal.
Even the technical designers of the stage Debbie contribute to the show's biting social relevance. Instead of using three-dimensional couches, one sex scene takes place behind a two-dimensional couch flat. (All nudity, sadly, is concealed.) Besides being inventive, Matthew Roney's stage design nods to the English and French comedies of manners, which used flat scenery to symbolize the vapidity of the social elite during the "Age of Surfaces." In Debbie, the flats draw attention to the single-mindedness of the men.
Since this adaptation is subtitled "A Success Story," there is little question as to whether or not Debbie makes enough money from these bags of hormones, but our heroine earns the money by breaking the virginity vow she had made. What's more, she allows herself to be seduced by Mr. Greenfeld because he's well-endowed. Here lies the irony behind the "success story": Debbie only "succeeds" by compromising her post-feminist, don't-burn-the-bra, use-what-you've-got values. She loses control, allowing the goofy Greenfeld to take hold of the situation.
In a chat with Susan Schwartz after opening night, I asked how the title character of Debbie Does Dallas felt in those breathless, post-coital moments. She replied that Debbie was excited to be going to Dallas but also had a reaction along the lines of "What have I done?" What has Debbie done, indeed?!