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Debbie Does Dallas

It Only Hurts the First Time

Billed as a “send-up of 70's porn, cheerleader rivalry and high school heartbreak,” and a “silly, fun, porntastic romp,” this uneven theatrical confection has a colorful and peripatetic provenance: it’s the San Francisco premier and latest incarnation of an off-Broadway piece which started out as a 2001 New York Fringe Festival production which was a musical rendition of a 1978 blockbuster porn film that was evidently trying to break new ground by attempting to have a “real plot” and “real actors.”

Whew! With a background like that, one’s not sure exactly what to expect. This production has a sludgy beginning and is amusing and diverting rather than engaging for the most part, although it does deliver some notable moments.

My first thought about this show was that it probably wouldn’t be particularly sexy or erotic, no matter how many words like “spicy” or “racy” were employed in the advertising copy ( these are always code for “one or two bare breasts,” “spoken or implied references to, but not depiction of, actual sex,” or “split second rear-view nudity.” Also, how does one do porn onstage? The practical problems are obvious. But "Debbie Does Dallas" actually handles the sex in a fun way, if a wee bit primly at times, using clumsy but effective devices like towels and backlit screens to good effect.

This piece is problematic in that it’s a bit daunting to figure out what’s a “send up” of what here -- porn’s universal reliance on the barest of hints of plot, setting, and character often gives it a playful and sardonic affect. Porn never took itself seriously, like metal bands do -- that’s why Spinal Tap is so awesomely hilarious. But like so many things in our strange culture, porn is still fun to, uh, take a poke at.

The musical’s original creator, Susan L. Schwartz, was probably intrigued by the naïve attempt to apply characters and plot to the porn genre, and that may be what’s being satirized. This idea could have potential. In this production, part of the appeal is that the storyline behaves almost like another lackadaisical character who wanders in and out of the action. When the story gets derailed by yet another silly erotic interlude, and just when you’re beginning to wonder (but not necessarily to care) what’s going to happen to Debbie (will she ever make it to Dallas?) some quasi dramatic turn of events (as when Debbie’s boyfriend Rick dumps her for her ambitious, conniving little vixen pal Lisa) reminds us that there’s a play, not a staged porn flick, going on.

Debbie, as the ultimate caricature of the virginal American cheerleader seems to represent a Puritanical and entirely mythical vision of teen chastity and innocence that we love to see crumble and slide down the slippery slope of sex. What’s curious is that we’re so attached to this image in the first place. Debbie’s a kind of WASP Madonna-whore: in fact the film’s original title was "The Best Little Whore in Texas" (withdrawn for legal reasons.) She undergoes a spiritual transformation in which she trades her virginity for the heady taste of economic power and self determination -- all that money for sex! All it costs her is her soul, as she ruefully, but briefly, laments during the show’s line dancing rejouissance.
I guess this is what is supposed to make the show “bittersweet,” but since you never really care about her or any of the other characters because it’s all a “send up” of something we don’t take seriously in the first place, there’s nothing particularly bitter or sweet about this transformation, it’s just part of the general silliness. That’s not all bad, as this production doesn‘t take itself very seriously either.

The original film version of "Debbie Does Dallas", one of the highest grossing porn titles of all time, was firmly embedded in our collective subconscious in the late 70s when it premiered, for several reasons. Its release coincided with the introduction of VCRs; it offered a relief from the excessively violent fare of the time; it attempted to tell as story and develop characters; its alliterative title was easy to remember; and not least, it generated a storm of controversy, lawsuits, and bans, from the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, the State of New York, among others. This valuable notoriety, combined with some fundamental appeal to Americans, spawned five sequels and at least twelve spinoffs, including Debbie Does Wall Street, Debbie Does S&M, and Debbie Does 'Em All. For an American icon, Debbie’s been a busy girl.

This production suffers from mediocre singers, which is unfortunate because the music is both live and original, if not particularly hummable. It is also marred by a somewhat mushy sound system, and the fact that al the actors are miked, with those skinny little customer service rep type mikes on their faces and transponder packs on their backs. (Imagine what this does to the magic of the semi-nude scenes.)

As a comedy, it failed to rattle my cage for at least the first half -- although the audience was certainly engaged, tittering gleefully, if a bit nervously, at the dopey jokes and innuendos which provide most of the cadences for the dialog. But one moment did shine through, when Debbie and Lisa are having their culminating bitch fight that, surprise, turns into a lesbo group cheerleader orgy, with Debbie and Lisa tearfully declaring their love for each other. At the height of the fighting, they suddenly start tonguing each other and moaning in full bogus lesbian porn style. The effect is truly hilarious and brings down the house.

Although both comedy and sex are hard to do in film and on stage -- few directors can master the timing and nuance -- if "Debbie Does Dallas" had a few more moments like that, it would be a much stronger piece.


Debbie Does Dallas
at the Eureka Theatre
runs through September 3
tickets: $21-28