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Theater review: The Performers 

Opening Minds, Hearts and Legs

You might have assumed that porn stars aren't quite as talented as the actors and actresses you've seen in mainstream Hollywood movies or TV series, let alone on the Broadway stage. But did you ever suspect that porn stars are incredibly ignorant, narcissistic, stupid and shallow? That's the chief revelation of David West Read's The Performers, a comedy that bombed so epically on Broadway in 2012 not even a cast including Cheyenne Jackson, Alicia Silverstone and Henry Winkler could save it.

In its Charlotte premiere, Queen City Theatre Company has assembled a pretty formidable cast of its own — for a 10-performance run that will exceed the original Gotham fiasco by 67 percent. Attending the immaculately performed dress rehearsal last Wednesday, I found plenty that QCTC followers will enjoy, particularly if they share my hankering for the work of Hank West, Alyson Lowe and the company's irrepressible managing director, Kristian Wedolowski.

Under Glenn T. Griffin's adroit direction, we get maximum mileage out of Read's other major revelation: porn stars are people! With feelings. A quartet of XXX celebs are among porn's elite who gather at a Las Vegas palace for an annual awards celebration of the best films and performers in the biz. One of the favorites for the best actor award, Mandrew, is in his hotel suite decked out in S&M gear, being interviewed by Lee, an old high school classmate.

Mandrew will repeatedly tell everyone that Lee is doing a centerfold story for the New York Times — oh yes, he's that clueless — when he's actually on assignment for the New York Post. Yet Lee is actually bland and inexperienced enough to be quite at home at the Times. His fiancée, Sara, is along for the trip and seems perfectly suited for the humdrum Lee, though she's rather attractive. So a basic thematic conflict is set up to divert us. Who is missing out the most, Sara and Lee, who know about sex but only with each other, or Mandrew and his wife Pussy Boots, who wistfully espy the humdrum track to home, family and careers you can tell your kids about?

We learn early on that both Mandrew and Peeps (Pussy's nickname) have deep-seated jealousies. Mandrew is resentful toward Chuck Wood, the aging porn king who isn't ready to give up his throne, while Peeps has suddenly developed the ability to resent her husband's attentions toward his bubbly co-star, Sundown. Including a kiss! Peeps' worries are compounded, for a number of reasons (two, actually), when she announces that she is pregnant.

All of this, spiced by Chuck's unextinguished horniness, leads to plenty of farcical action that not only involves mate swapping but also outlook swapping as Lee and Sara dip into promiscuity while Mandrew and Peeps face domesticity. So there is a lot going for Read's script if it weren't plotted so formulaically. The whole awards setup and persistent bedroom hopping substitute for anything that might be unique and revelatory about the porn industry. Comedy connoisseurs might also crave a respite from the cheap shots aimed exclusively at the vulgar celebs.

While the hackneyed sitcom resolution was pilloried by New York media, public disaffection may have centered on how the cast was deployed. If seeing the beloved Fonz devolve into a dirty old man didn't turn the Henry Winkler fans off, maybe folks were disappointed when Silverstone was the drab Sara instead of the bimbo Sundown.

No such letdowns occur at Duke Energy Theater. After his turns as Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Felix Unger, the sleazoid dimensions of Chuck Wood are a logical next step for Hank West, one he obviously relishes — and humanizes. Padding a resume filled with similar roles, Alyson Lowe is channeling the slutty Sundown instead of the tentative suburbanite, wallowing with gusto. Wedolowski is also in familiar bestial territory as Mandrew, his broken English more decipherable than ever.

Though I'd really prefer that the tedious Peeps, steering the action toward domesticity, didn't exist, I must grudgingly admire all the vitality that Karen Christenson bestows on the slatternly ball-and-chain and the ferocity she brings to the Peeps-Sundown rivalry. On the other hand, there is much to be said for the conventional couple and their perspective.

In a more truly risqué script, Sara and Lee might serve a purpose similar to Janet and Brad's in The Rocky Horror Show. A veteran of the Tarradiddle Players touring troupe, Scott A. Miller is wonderfully milquetoasty as Lee, with just the right sliver of latent audacity. Veda Covington radiantly matches him purity-for-purity and urge-for-urge as Sara, glowing with an undimmed girl-next-door aura even when she swaps dresses with Peeps.

Thanks to Isabella Marie's outré costume designs, the look of the show is as polished as the performances. The Performers will unquestionably quench a craving for a summer evening of pure silliness, but it isn't half as daring or naughty as it should be.

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