Danny Aiello and Jeannie Berlin in Adult Entertainment(Photo © Nancy Ellison)
Danny Aiello and Jeannie Berlin in Adult Entertainment
(Photo © Nancy Ellison)
Think of the possibilities: The writer is Elaine May; the director is Stanley Donen; the stars include Danny Aiello and May's talented daughter, Jeannie Berlin; and the play has the tantalizing title Adult Entertainment. Expectations run high...so the results are all the more disappointing. This is an ambitious little comedy about characters in the porn industry that does become increasingly funny as it builds to -- you'll excuse the expression -- its climax. Unfortunately, the play's tone never rings true.

The first scene is numbingly dull. A handful of characters talk foolishly on a public access TV show starring the empty-headed Heidi-the-Ho (Linda Halaska). Playwright May and director Donen attempt to send up the Robin Byrd TV show but, alas, they don't so much mock it as emulate it. We watched all of this from the back of the Variety Arts Theatre, having arrived just as the show began; the audience sat stupefied, clearly wanting to laugh but finding little that was funny. May takes pains to establish her characters but the pains soon become ours as Adult Entertainment ends up in a ditch out of which it then has to climb.

And it's a slow climb. The basic setup is that four porn stars, tired of being in bad movies, decide instead to make their own X-rated films. At first it's essentially a business decision. They join with Guy Aken (Danny Aiello), the brother of their late, lamented director, for a simple reason: He has the equipment and owns the garage where the movies are shot. He also wears dark glasses and acts like a director. Guy comes up with a slightly pretentious script that all involved fight about, mostly because each actor wants more lines. So they decide that they need a real writer.

Enter Yale graduate Gerry DiMarco (Brandon Demery) -- and, at last, the comedy kicks in. Gerry, who thinks of himself as an auteur, has a grand idea to create a porn movie that will sell to the art house crowd; but he quickly discovers that the drugged-out misfits he's working with can't act. Worse, they lack the skills to understand the art he's trying to create, so Gerry begins to educate them with dizzying speed in a roller-coaster ride from the classics to contemporary literature. Suddenly, to considerable comic effect, Frosty Moons (Jeannie Berlin), Vixen Fox (Mary Birdsong), Jimbo J (Eric Elice), and Heidi-the-Ho are having cracked discussions about everything from Death of a Salesman to Susan Sontag.

Eric Elice, Linda Halaska, Mary Birdsong, Jeannie Berlin, and Danny Aiello in Adult Entertainment(Photo © Nancy Ellison)
Eric Elice, Linda Halaska, Mary Birdsong, Jeannie Berlin,
and Danny Aiello in Adult Entertainment
(Photo © Nancy Ellison)
Yet herein lies the play's central failing. May gets a lot of comic mileage out of the huge chasm that her porn star characters have to leap from their doped-up, dysfunctional, uneducated backgrounds to suddenly phoning each other and discussing Brendan Behan as if they were graduate students at a prestigious university. The problem isn't that this leap is incredible, it's that May made her characters out to be such idiots in the first place; they start off as too stupid, too one-dimensional, to be taken seriously. They never feel like real people.

The lone exception is Guy, played by Danny Aiello, who is a far more realistic character as written; he's concerned with child support, familial jealousies, and a more rooted sense of the business aspects of filmmaking. As a result, when he's funny, the humor comes from a human being we can recognize -- and, therefore, the jokes are richer. The other actors play clichés and so, when they toss off joke lines, we're conscious of hearing the voice of the author.

This is not the fault of the actors, all of whom throw caution to the wind in their performances. Jeannie Berlin captures a comic sweetness in counterpoint to her world-weary countenance. Mary Birdsong has a perky charm, Linda Halaska is a gallant blonde stereotype, and Eric Elice stays just this side of over-the-top as a dim-witted stud with a need to nurture that borders on the pathological. Brandon Demery, as their erstwhile teacher, is suitably intense.

Stanley Donen is famous as a film director. He co-directed Singin' in the Rain with Gene Kelly and went solo on such films as Royal Wedding, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Funny Face, Charade, Two for the Road, and many others. Adult Entertainment isn't going to besmirch his reputation, because he leaves no special mark on the production. The set design by Neil Patel is properly tacky, as are Suzy Benzinger's costumes.

The major problem with Adult Entertainment is that Elaine May looks down her nose at the characters she has created. In an attempt to milk easy laughs, she forfeits her more serious intentions, and the work ultimately falls flat.