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Slag Heap

This shock-and-awe play about British prostitutes starts off with a bang but ends with a whimper. logo
Brienan Nequa Bryant and Vincent Kartheiser
in Slag Heap
Photo © Heather Laszlo
Eugene Scribe, who developed a formula for writing commercially successful plays in the 19th century, probably never imagined a piece like Slag Heap. Audiences of his time would never have sanctioned theater with such explicit depictions of prostitution, homosexuality, drug use, pedophilia, pornography, and grinding poverty. In today's era of such playwrights as Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane, however, these subjects are no longer taboo -- especially not if they're dealt with in a neat moral fable that gives Thatcherite economics a light slap on the wrists. While Slag Heap is not the most challenging play of the season, author anton dudley [sic] has a good ear for dialogue and a gift for dark humor that make one wonder what he could do with a less contrived plot.

The play follows a group of slags -- two hookers and a gigolo -- as they try to hustle their way off the streets of Manchester and into posh London society. Dave and Ashley are two old friends and sometime lovers who cruise for clients outside a local pub. Business has been much better for Dave, and Ashley chalks this up to one of the fallouts of women's liberation: As female sexuality became less mysterious, she argues, prospective johns turned to male-on-male action as something more exotic. Nevertheless, Fran -- a sexy black woman from Dave's past -- ropes in a lot of money from a single john.

Sharp dialogue that makes the prostitutes seem almost too gung-ho about their trade keeps the play racing through most of the first act. Conflict arises when a gentleman in a limousine, identified only as "the fat man," rolls by to solicit Dave and Fran for a threesome; it's clear that the encounter will eventually drive a wedge between Ashley and the rest of the gang. The plot thickens further when Fran's plump roommate Donna gets the two of them in legal trouble by fooling around with a minor in their flat.

The play takes a sour turn after intermission as dudley spins it into a sentimental morality tale. While the first act's slags had discussed the economics of anal sex, the second act's hookers-with-hearts-of-gold of wax contemplative about what their lives could have been if not for cuts in various social programs: Dave says that he'd really like to have been a rapper, Fran tells of a traumatic experience that led her to reconsider what life means, and Ashley learns the hard way about the value of friendship.

Though Slag Heap contains too much coarse language, bloodletting, and partial nudity for the major networks, its message would be safe for an After School Special. Instead of confronting the audience with its indifference to sexual exploitation, dudley passes the quid to Thatcher and to the characters' own desire for money and fame. What Off-Broadway theatergoer would object to such easy targets? Meanwhile, we're invited to forget our own participation in the very conditions that make the cycle possible.

Most of the acting is strong enough to keep the play entertaining throughout. Vincent Kartheiser and Polly Lee play Dave and Ashley with a bubbly charm that seems the result of a combination of youthful optimism and a steady supply of cocaine. Brienan Nequa Bryant portrays the harder-edged Fran very convincingly, and her strong focus helps ground the action. Janelle Anne Robinson is hilarious as Donna, who indulges in one disgusting activity after another without a trace of self-consciousness, while Alexander Flores portrays her pre-pubescent lover well. Maggie Moore never gets past the limitations of her ridiculous, two-dimensional role of a French strumpet. Director Michael Morris keeps the production's pace cracking.

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