City Girls & Desperadoes by Pamela Enz, now in its world premiere at The Secret Theatre in Queens, NY, is a colorful and vivacious if intermittently frustrating comedy-drama that recalls a heady, addled, junkie-intellectual subculture of the 1970s. Directed with panache and heartache by The Secret Theatre’s Richard Mazda, it features a talented cast that includes Broadway veteran Austin Pendleton.
Pendleton plays Arthur, an easygoing old man with a healthy libido and a heavy cocaine habit, who is the interpersonal center of a Beat Generation manqué downtown New York City scene. But while Arthur may have the charisma and stamina to meet the needs of both a longsuffering wife and a demanding mistress, the blazing locus of Enz’s story is that mistress, who is also the biggest junkie of all. Dani (Julie Atlas Muz), a blowzy, drowsy, higher-than-high piece of human poetry, has an almost superhuman magnetism, enough to sustain lovers and drug dealers in her orbit.
Smoothly paced for most of the way, the production did run into a few potholes at its first-ever performance last night. A scene in Act I where Arthur’s wife Susan (Annette Benda Fox) first meets Dani faltered as, for a while, the two didn’t seem to know how to time their lines. At a few other moments, too, the actors lost focus, even the honorable Mr. Pendleton (who was Broadway’s original Motel the tailor in Fiddler on the Roof, the latest revival of which I coincidentally saw last night) – as if they hadn’t found the needed depths of some of the script’s sparser, more naturalistic passages.
But more often, Enz’s steamy script and Mazda’s cool direction combined to strike a good balance between poetic flights and the dirty guts of people’s natures – in this case, vivid and well-acted people. The production’s rewards overcame my frustrations in the end.
The biggest case in point was my initial frustration at not be able to understand many of the lines spoken by Lilli (an effervescent Connie Castanzo), a hyperactive Cupid of cocaine. Lilli flits about her more down-to-earth lover, Rita (Karina Ortiz) and their customers as Rita dispenses coke with a side of street wisdom, the latter flowering into poetic and powerful motherly advice in a late scene with a disillusioned Dani. I can’t recall another time when even though I missed a lot of a character’s lines (in this case because of Lilli’s exaggerated Latina accent) I couldn’t help falling for her. So what if she’s something of a stereotype? I believed in the reality of her, just as I believed in Rita, and Arthur, and, in Act II, the otherwise underwritten character of Susan, and Dani’s new, much younger lover Gary (a very effective and funny Peter Collier).
Did I believe as much in Dani herself? Ultimately I did, in the way one believes in Tennessee Williams’s larger-than-life mother figures. Imagine one of them dropped into a Lanford Wilson play, and you’ll have a hint at what to expect with City Girls & Desperadoes. Enz has a deft touch with simultaneous conversations, and an ability to use quotidian language to get at what’s in a character’s heart. That last is a skill harder to master than waxing poetic.