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Dead Solid Texas

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas Written by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson Directed by Peter Masterson At the Shubert Theatre

By Laurence S. Grafstein

THE WORD FROM WASHINGTON is that when Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York needed support on an important bill, Sen. John Tower of Texas approached him and offered his backing in exchange for two tickets to The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The bill passed. Now rumor has it that senators are calling Moynihan left and right for sought-after seats on Broadway.

Speaking of greasing the hand that feeds, pork-barrel politics is not the only tired theme Whorehouse exhausts. Nothing here is new, least of all the facetious revelation that "Texas has a whorehouse in it." Well hot damn. Maybe now all those wealthy writin' types will shelve the noble-madam, respectable-brothel routine. Or maybe they'll keep on prostituting themselves--black gold, you know, Texas' T.

This latest variation comes complete with a chorus line of Aggie football jocks bursting at the seams, an investigative reporter mildly reminiscent of the Rev. Billy Sol Hargas (Say Hallelujah!), and a tap-dancing guv'nah who says things like "the Jews and the A-rabs should settle matters in a Christian fashion" and "the real cause of unemployment, it's the people out of work." Given these elements, it's hard not to enjoy the show. For entertainment's sake, Whorehouse is about as close to dead solid perfect as you'll get. But is it art?

After years playing opposite Bogart, Bogarde, Flynn, Benny and Gable, Alexis Smith finally gets to play the harlot Xaviera instead of hard to get. She slides down stairs and moseys off stage convincingly enough, but the Texas Tally Wackers--the "orchestra"--drown out her songs. She's still a pretty classy old whore, and does her best to compensate for a script crammed full of non-sequiturs. The storyline slips readily from bathos to pathos and back again.

The Tally Wacker band is hopelessly incompetent, and the women of the whorehouse would only excite, well, Texans. The Aggie chorus line is the hottest thing north of San Antone, but performs only one number (you may have seen it on the Tony awards--it was the one with all the embarrassing bleeps). Whorehouse makes up for its adult language with gleeful immaturity, unabashedly the source of the play's success. Remember, this is the land of Lone Star beer and the Dallas Cowpeople--how can you get serious about it?

In possibly one of the most contrived roles ever, Hogan's Heroes regular Larry Hovis does a suitable Dan Rather imitation as gospel-spitting Melvin P. Thorpe of Watchdog News. Melvin is "the eyes and ears of Texas." He has unearthed candy-bar scandals and sets out to prove that, yes, the Chicken Ranch of Gilbert is indeed a house of ill-repute. Melvin, a particularly cloying character who sports red, white and blue underwear, would be innocuous if not for his southern-Bible-Belt style of self-righteous reportage. The perpetuation of yet another overworked stereotype eclipses the attempted parody.

Also mired in the crude is a slick performance by Marilyn B. Johnson as Jewel, the brothel's caretaker. In a rousing number, she tells the houses residents that she gives away for free what they sell. "Twenty four hours of Lovin''' sends you reeling in a steamy frenzy; it's Whorehouse at its best. Alas, Johnson is also a stereotype: she is black. So one thing stands out about Whorehouse: this celebration of Texas is a mere confirmation of the rest of America's suspicions. If you're easily offended, don't go. But, great gushers, if you've got a rawhide skin, it's fun.

SLIVERS OF TEXAN LIFE brighten Whorehouse: the cussin' sheriff, the corpulent mayor, the flunky-prostitute-turned-cafe-waitress, the hot-to-trot senator. But the constant shuttle of the various characters onstage adds clutter to an already busy setting. And scriptwriter Larry L. King has no qualms about injecting songs for no reason. There is no reason in Whorehouse. Is there reason in Texas? Is there a reason for Texas?

While lines like "Men aren't all bad, just 92 per cent bad" ring hollow, worshippers of Texan jargon strike oil in Whorehouse. But you can find choicer idioms in the glorious novels of Peter Gent and Dan Jenkins. Those novels aren't pretentious; this play is. It strains to hard to mock every Texan myth that the effect is laughable, more than laudable. So see it and laugh--after all, John Connally may be the next president. And John Tower reportedly liked it. Hot damn.

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