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7 Blow Jobs

By New York City
Madeleine Maby, Elizabeth Neptune, and Philip Cruisein 7 Blow Jobs
Madeleine Maby, Elizabeth Neptune, and Philip Cruise
in 7 Blow Jobs
What happens to plays that are ahead of their time as time insistently hustles on? It's dismaying to report that they often become as behind the times as the hula hoop or the hoop skirt. Today's case in point is Mac Wellman's 7 Blow Jobs, written in 1991 and revived now by Thin Duke Productions in what might kindly be called a so-so production.

When Wellman, only weeks ago handed a Lifetime Achievement Obie by the Village Voice, concocted the brashly-titled 7 Blow Jobs, he was responding to NEA funding cuts with a strong poke at hypocrisy and homophobia within the loopy Washington, D.C. loop. He imagined a right-wing senator's office to which are hand delivered seven grainy photographs depicting not-instantly-identifiable parties engaging in what looks like -- horrors! -- fellatio. The agitated occupants of the office, who eventually include the gay-baiting senator, wonder if this is a case of "Smear or surveillance?"

When the wizard wordsmith Wellman was writing this play, the first George Bush was presiding over the nation and Monica Lewinsky had only just left Beverly Hills High School to attend what's been dubbed an exclusive Bel-Air prep school. Although Wellman had no way of foreseeing that the country was only a half dozen years or so away from having fellatio rubbed in its face, so to speak, it might be said of him that he was utilizing imaginative skills that often lead to first-rate authors being regarded as visionaries. (For a more recent instance, examine Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul -- much of which was written in 1997 -- and subsequent Afghanistan events.)

It's undoubtedly the sense of the prescient that prompted Thin Duke to take a decade-later gander at Wellman's once nervy little satire. In discussing the brief, two-act swipe at ignorance and spite in high places, someone may have said something like: "Considering developments in the Oval Office since Wellman finished the play, it's more timely now than ever." Heads may have nodded vigorously all around, with someone else subsequently pointing to continuing gay-unfriendly decisions like the nixing of this year's gay and lesbian party as an appropriate in-house Department of Justice event.

There's no question that the Thin Duke folks are pushing the hoped-for pertinent aspect of 7 Blow Jobs. To wit: For the program cover, they've taken what appears to be a 1960s photograph of Doris Day walking six poodles and superimposed the currently presiding Bush's face over dog-lover Day's and the faces of Ari Fleischer, Tom Ridge, Donald Rumsfeld, Jesse Helms, John Ashcroft, and Pat Robertson over the poodles' heads. The doctored Dodo and dogs were then superimposed on a D.C. map.

It's an amusing notion that backfires, since the combination of the altered photo and the inevitable association of the provocative title with actual White House fellation seems to promise a play pegged very caustically to recent and current headlines. But that's not what Wellman has written. His dark comedy is a generalized sketch of the sort that would be cut to eight or 10 minutes on Saturday Night Live, if not discarded altogether as too soft.

In Wellman's work, receptionist Dot (Madeleine Maby), legislative assistant Bruce (Philip Cruise), and administrative assistant Eileen (Elizabeth Neptune) are on hand when the salacious pics are signed for. Since the trio are competing for favor in the office, they're scandalized at first by what they see and then bicker combatively about the implications. In many of his plays, Wellman has puckish fun with language and how it can be simultaneously charged and meaningless, but in 7 Blow Jobs he's content to get laughs (or so he hopes) from Eileen's repeated demand that Dot and Bruce "bag it." He also attempts to squeeze comedic juice from the use of the word "that" as a substitute for something more sexually and/or anatomically specific. Sophomoric, that.

Billy Steel, Madeleine Maby, Edward Miller, andElizabeth Neptune in 7 Blow Jobs
Billy Steel, Madeleine Maby, Edward Miller, and
Elizabeth Neptune in 7 Blow Jobs
Eventually, almost all of the characters are "that"-ing with appalled expressions on their faces. The grimacing parties include Senator Bob (Billy Steel), who enters with a cigar in his mouth (get the reference?) and remains irate over the number of "faggots" with whom he has to deal. Another grimacing person is Reverend Tom (Edward Miller), an opportunistic evangelist who, among other self-satisfied activities, holds a small prayer meeting for the senator and Eileen, both of whom are provocatively posed on hands and knees.

Others who join in the frantic antics are Senator Bob's son, Bob Junior (Michael Whitney), and a suspicious character called Bobbob Junior (Ken Mason), whom the Senator paws suggestively while continuing his jeremiad on homosexuals in government. Indeed, while Senator Bob gives Bobbob a pectoral massage, Wellman gets around to hinting that the twosome's body parts may be those featured in the offending snapshots. This thinly veiled charge of hypocrisy is about as deep and as original as Wellman's satire cuts.

What's undeniable about 7 Blow Jobs is that many of the play's deficiencies were no less noticeable in 1991 than they are in 2003. Even then, Eileen's "bag it"s were tedious and tediouser; Reverend Tom's fulsome prayers were old hat; the notion of a man denouncing homosexuality while being closeted himself was musty; the list of famous government figures accused of being gay was tiresome; and a remark like "That's not a blowjob, that's the Pope" was as corny as Kansas in August. The audacity of Wellman's title and the central conceit of the dirty pictures, coupled with anger over narrow-minded and anti-intellectual Washington policy, were enough to excuse Wellman's lapses at that time, but what was accepted and hailed as outrageous then doesn't raise a mild titter now.

To some extent, the play's problems let actors off the hook. Wouldn't it challenge the most accomplished comedienne to make something of "bag it" after the first couple of outbursts? Still, more might be expected than Elizabeth Neptune brings to the role of the vindictive Eileen, and the same can be said without exception for the rest of the company. They're directed by Philip Cruise, who plays Bruce and is also credited with working on the lighting design with Ed Miller. Cruise puts himself and colleagues through their paces out of duty more than imagination. The nice set, with the Washington Monument on view through one curtained window, is by Jeff Subik and Krista Gall; Traci DiGesu designed the costumes, Jeff Subik the sound, and Steve Goldberger composed the unobtrusive original music.

By now, the only provocative aspect of 7 Blow Jobs is its handle. Maybe it's time for Wellman to retire the play and use the title for a new piece -- perhaps a barbed examination of teenage dating practices.


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