Any play that depicts Louis B. Mayer in his skivvies fooling around with an underage, would-be starlet has a little more chutzpah in its veins than your average Hollywood expose. Not surprising, since the play is Michael Sargent's "My Crime," at the Cast Theatre.
Barely above-age (at 21), playwright-director Sargent no longer must offer proof that he has the nerve to push his material and characters to extremes: his previous hyper-dark forays into show-biz dreams and sexual suicide, "And a Honkytonk Girl Says She Will" and "I Hate!," were evidence of a fresh mind fascinated by human misdemeanors.
It is precisely by Sargent's own standard that the new play falls short. He has the kind of capacity David Rabe displayed in "Sticks and Bones" to push the theater out of its comfort zone and into disturbing territory, made more treacherous by its comic incline.
For too much of its course, "My Crime" isn't disturbing at all, but a slightly abstracted variation on those nasty bedroom tales in Kenneth Anger's "Hollywood Babylon" books. With its numerous and extremely short scenes that are more about what's not seen and heard than what is, "My Crime" leaves a lot to our imaginations. None of it, though, not even Mayer in underwear, is shocking enough.
The problem is that anyone who's ever dwelled on this world of sleaze will find that "My Crime" sounds a familiar echo rather than a new tune. We know matinee idol King Casey (Lee Kissman) is blowing it when he beds the loquacious waitress, Mary (Rachel Powell). We know that pregnant Mary will blackmail him, and will do anything to get into the movies.
Given this world, there may be no way around this knowability factor. In fact, on a graph tracking the inevitable fall of one character and the rise of another, "My Crime" measures up perfectly.
The fun, and the art, is in how they fall, how they rise. That's where Mary's vampiric Mommy (Tina Preston) and Casey's debauched ex-wife Carlotta (Shawna Casey) enter the picture, and where the fate of the play rests.
As Mommy engineers Mary's career, so Carlotta acts as Casey's companion in his drop into oblivion. Even here, though, we've seen it all before: the stock stage mother, no nastier, really, than Mama Rose, and far less than "Mommy Dearest"; the former grande dame, now playing in trashy dives.
On paper, they're just types. So "My Crime" reaches its darkest level only when director Sargent lets Preston and Casey push their limits. Preston is a true original, bending a line and adding pauses like a dance club deejay distorts a pop single for effect. Casey's Carlotta really goes to the outer limits, climaxing in a primitive dance number that only the most courageous actresses would dare.
It also suggests what "My Crime" might become, if Sargent takes the gloves off. There are glimpses of this in Powell's increasingly snide Mary and especially Harvey Perr's evil Mayer. Kissman, though, seems unsure what to do with his matinee idol, a wimp without a cause.
What look like mistakes--the seemingly ridiculous scenelets (one of these is only two lines long), Sekiya Billman's way of lighting them with one light--are by design. What looks less by design is "My Crime's" reluctance to fully investigate the crime itself.
At 800 N. El Centro, on Fridays through Sundays, 8 p.m., until Sept. 2. $5-$10; (213) 462-0265.