Shock, Awe, and...Jane Fonda?

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

The first two scenes of Sheila Callaghan's That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play are not only jarring, they're the two most effective scenes in the play.

Now as you've probably guessed from the title this isn't a play for the faint of heart. If you've got fragile ears you're probably going to want to skip both this review and the play itself.

After a quick prologue that has two stripper sisters identifying their target singing karaoke in an oversized sombrero -- don't ask -- we find ourselves in a $150 a night hotel room. The sisters have lured their victim back to the room with the promise of a sexy threesome. The guy stumbles in drunk, proceeds to drag one girl on the bed and then talk back to the other. This sister's having none of it. She pulls out a handgun and shoots him in the head. Then, because this is apparently part of this duo's cross-country M.O., they take pictures of the corpse for their blog.

Okay, I know this seems gruesome but just wait. We're only getting started.

Because structurally it's that kind of play, Ms. Callaghan repeats the scene but this time with the genders inverted. Now, it's two men luring a woman to a hotel room. Most of the dialogue repeats, the man pulls out a gun, shoots her. But that's not enough; the two then proceed to bludgeon her. It's gratuitously violent but that seems to be, in part, what Ms. Callaghan is after.

If you can get behind the gore and the sensationalism, the two scenes are an interesting study in gender expectations. You find yourself discovering how certain lines feel more familiar to you coming out of one gender's mouth: the revelation of the gun more shocking from the woman than the man; the idea of rape pathetically masculine rather than feminine. You find yourself replaying the scene in your mind and discovering all your cultural media baggage.

If the rest of the play lived up to this early promise, I'd be a fan.

Unfortunately, like Ms. Callaghan's Women Laughing Alone with Salad that played at the Kirk Douglas Theater, it fails to deliver: instead relying on a playwright's version of shock, awe, and . . . oh Jane Fonda.

Ms. Fonda, circa her exercise-video-era, is a sort of a guiding force/complicated feminist icon for the script, appearing in stretchy lycra and headband throughout.

While it's a convoluted, lazy journey of a play, the gist of it is that the saga of those two stripper sisters gets appropriated by a sketchy male filmmaker who takes their story, weaves in a reprehensible Iraq war angle complete with burqa and, we assume by the closing scene, receives accolades at some Sundance-like talk-back.

Conceptually, it's a criticism of the misogyny and absurd gender roles that women, and to some extent men, are forced into when put through the meat grinder of the male authorial voice.

What I'll leave for some college seminar to sort out is, if in the process of making that criticism you dress your actresses up as strippers and have them jello wrestle on stage, is that moving your cause forward or backward?

That Pretty Pretty; or The Rape Play plays at the Son of Semele Ensemble on the edge of Silver Lake through June 19.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Photo: Laura Carson