Vernacular Verbatim

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Vernacular Verbatim

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

The death of novelist Hubert Selby Jr. last month, marked the passing of one the first American writers to truly capture the vernacular of what people call -the street.- Going back as far as Mark Twain and Gertrude Stein, you find writers trying to capture truth and beauty in the less elevated styles of American speech-but it was Selby, with his groundbreaking work Last Exit to Brooklyn, who found poetry, not just in the cadences and diction of slang, but in its brute force as well.

In 1964, Selby-s writing was banned in England and labeled -dirty- by Time magazine. But in 2004, four-letter words and graphic depictions of almost every human interaction are now an everyday part of literature and the other arts-which is why two productions that might have inspired indecency charges forty years ago, now have only inspired applause from local theatergoers.

The first of these shows takes its title from three of this country-s most notorious racial epithets, so it will be politely referred to here as NWC. Those wanting the title to be spelled out will have to see the production, but those who are curious can be told the following three things: 1.) in terms of shocking language, the play-s authors are anything but niggardly, 2.) in terms of cost, the show won-t be a major monetary setback, and 3.) although this scrappy play is fun, the performers haven-t quite worked out all the show-s kinks.

NWC opens with each of its three performers walking on stage, saying their respective racial slur, and then repeating it over and over. This slowly defangs the epithets and turns their repetition into a sort of fugue. It-s a brilliant prologue, one that promises an evening of theatrical insights as well as social ones.

Unfortunately NWC offers no further coups of stagecraft. The rest of the production consists of the three performers (who co-wrote NWC with the show-s directors) interacting in brief sketches and then breaking down into monologues about their lives. Luckily, many of these reminiscences are clever and some are even touching, especially Allan Axibal-s story about wanting to be an Asian Tom Cruise; however, NWC often feels less like a real theatrical construction, and more like a stand-up comedy session interspersed with earnest public service announcements. The three talented performers will make you laugh, but ultimately NWC-for all its insights and ambition- seems like good material that-s still waiting to find its form.

If NWC is a urban, slanged-out Portrait of Artist as a Young Man, then the show Slanguage could be described as a collision between Finnegans Wake and a poetry slam. Like NWC, Slanguage is a loose, improvisatory work that is less about characters, plots and sets-and more about words, ideas, and identity.

The show was developed by members of Universes, a New York-based ensemble-so it-s appropriate that the one vestige of structure is a ride on the Uptown #2 Train. Using vocal percussion to simulate the noise of the subway and a bullhorn to deliver lyric parodies of the conductors addresses, this is but one of many theatrical effects the five cast members of Slanguage vividly create.

This show also pays homage to past poets, writers and musicians, referencing everyone from John Keats to KRS-1. Hubert Selby doesn-t get a shout out, but the Brooklyn-born writer would no doubt have been impressed with an extended sequence that re-creates five different conversations taking place on an outer borough street corner. Of course, it-s all carefully choreographed so you can only hear certain snatches of dialogue from each character-but the resulting effect is one that shows the direct and expressive power of everyday speech.

Slanguage closes this Sunday at the Ivy Substation in Culver City, N*GGER WETB*CK CH*NK runs through May 29 at the Los Angeles Theater Center.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.