WARNING: Language in this play and in my review is rated NC-17.
Hollywood legend has it that the Munchkins went wild during the filming of The Wizard Of Oz. Drunken sex orgies at their Culver City hotel were just one example of their decadent depravity, and (it is said) one of the little people committed suicide by hanging himself during filming. The two-and-a-half hour long Babylon Heights, by Irvine Welsh and Dean Cavanaugh, imagines what might have happened inside and out of the Culver Heights Hotel, redubbed Babylon Heights due to the all-around debauchery of its pint-sized tenants.
Meet the Munchkins of Babylon Heights, all played by full-sized actors.
Bert Kowalski (Paul Knox) is a foul-mouthed, foul-tempered, pugilistic little SOB whose first word is “Cocksucker!”, shouted to an unseen desk clerk, followed by “Piece of goddamned shit!”, yelled at the room he’ll be sharing with …
Charles Merryweather (Marcus Proctor), an effete English midget who speaks in a high soprano voice and wears his blonde hair tied back in a bun. Is he transgendered? Is he gay? Perhaps not, but he is certainly a cheerful chap.
Charles: I would not be here unless I felt it had artistic merit.
Bert: Fucking ass piece of shit.
Charles: Must you use vulgarities?
Bert: You mean like “midget?”
Charles: Can’t we just get along? Do you have to use such coarse language?
Bert: Fucking coarse is a great fucking word.
Then there’s Raymond Benedict-Porter (Daniel A. Tennant), a self-described “real” actor and American blue blood. Raymond claims to be close friends with Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen, songwriters for The Wizard Of Oz. “They insisted I come aboard,” he declares. “Very close friends.” Raymond then goes on to lecture Charles on the use of the word “cunt.” “Cunt is a great tool,” he explains. “I’m more fond of it than, I don’t know, say ‘fuck’ off the top of my head. Far too common a curse: fuck.” And by the way, Raymond is close friends too with Wizard producer Mervyn LeRoy and will be playing the Mayor Of The Munchkins, or so he claims.
An envelope with the names of all four tenants on it reveals that the person they’re expecting is someone named Kinsella, and that Raymond’s role in the film will in fact be Third Munchkin Soldier On The Left. He’s been demoted, prompting a phone call he says is to LeRoy.
Finally Philomena Kinsella (Casey Gates) arrives, a sweet young thing with an Irish lilt and Mary Pickford curls. When Philomena remarks that she must have come to the wrong room, Bert quickly invites her to stay. “Hey, honey, I got an itch that needs scratching,” he suggests.
Following a meal at a nearby Italian restaurant, the foursome get ready to call it a night, Charles wearing a pink nightie, his blond locks hanging down to his shoulders and an upset look on his face. Apparently some ass fucking (of Charles) has been going on, though ass-fucker Raymond informs his ass-fuckee that he should just have relaxed and that it’s his own fault that he’s hysterical now. It doesn’t help that Charles’s money is missing, apparently stolen by Raymond.
Bert meanwhile has other things on his mind, like having sat on Judy Garland’s lap that day. “God I had such a fucking boner!” he tells his fellow roommates, though not Philomena, who has shut herself up in the bathroom, Bert says, “soaking her fucking pussy in there.”
There seems to be some concern among the Munchkins that they won’t get paid for their work in the film. Fear not, says Bert. Their bosses are “cocksuckers who suck cock, but they’re MGM cocksuckers. They’ll pay us.”
By now, we’re about an hour and a half into Babylon Heights, so rather than give away all the remaining plot twists and turns, I’ll simply provide the following hints:
Someone will attempt to give someone else a blow job only to discover there’s not much of anything there to blow. Someone will become hooked on alcohol and opium. Someone’s nappies will be covered in blood. One of the four’s past will be revealed, a past which involved corrupting a minor who was “ripped open and fucked up inside.” That same person will be accused of “fucking asses till they can’t stop shitting.” One of the characters will attack another and threaten to kill him/her with a bullet. Someone will utter the immortal lines, “They’ve got proof you stuck your dick up his little asshole!” and “You aren’t going to stick some flag in my ass and fuck it.” And someone else will cry out, “It’s sodomy. It’s fucking sodomy.”
And there you have it.
In the production’s favor, Knox, Proctor, Tennant, and Gates deliver intense, committed performances. Clearly, the foursome take Welsh and Cavanough’s script very seriously, regardless of its intent, and resist any attempt to wink at the audience or camp it up. They deserve high marks for this, and for maintaining straight faces even when required to utter lines like those quoted above.
Levi Gadson and Gisela Valenzuela Dicapria have designed an outrageously funny, ingenious set and the props to go with it. Everything is HUGE, in order to make the full-sized cast seem little by comparison. Some items are two and three times their normal dimensions: doors and doorknobs, beds, tables, lamps, phones, wine glasses, cigarettes, cigarette lighters, toilet paper rolls, dumbbells, etc. There’s also some very clever prop business, e.g. it’s necessary for the characters to move the phone receiver from one position to listen to another in order to speak. Matari 2600’s sound design cleverly incorporates music from the Wizard Of Oz soundtrack. Reagan’s comic book-style costumes are also worthy of note, particularly the ones the foursome wear as Munchkins, right out of the MGM classic. Yammy Swoot’s lighting is fine as well.
As directed by Matthew Anderson, The Garage Theatre production of Babylon Heights can’t seem to decide whether it’s a very black and somewhat cleverly written comedy, or a really bad drama. Though I was one of only a handful in the audience laughing during the increasingly dark and crude second act, I was unsure whether I was laughing with or at the lines. Most of the audience sat dead silent during Act 2, their faces often seeming to register shock or bewilderment. Ironically, these were the audience members applauding and even cheering the loudest during curtain calls. Did they think Babylon Heights was serious drama? Were they bothered by those of us who were laughing?
Whether comedy or drama, Babylon Heights is about forty-five minutes too long.
Enthusiastic audience response would seem to indicate that I wasn’t Babylon Heights’ target audience. (It did seem, though, that many attendees knew members of the cast.) Silverlake hipsters might find Babylon Heights entertaining if they are willing to make the trek down to Long Beach.
The Garage Theatre, 251 E. 7th St., Long Beach.
May 28, 2009
Photos: Jami Johnson