By Les Spindle
Caryn and Ronnie-it sounds like a sitcom title. Indeed, the colorful fire-and-water chemistry and gossipy banter between audacious gay writer/director/actor Ronnie Larsen and his diminutive but dynamic lesbian producer Caryn Horwitz are endlessly entertaining. But the unique cottage industry that has proven to be so successful for Horwitz (a former criminology professor from New Jersey) and Larsen (a former Shakespearean director from Bakersfield) is a far cry from network television. This shrewd bicoastal duo have combined their considerable talents to establish a nationwide franchise of sexy, smash-hit gay plays, the latest of which, Shooting Porn, concludes its critically acclaimed world premiere run at West Hollywood's Zephyr Theatre this week.
Part of a frequently maligned genre, the Horwitz/Larsen ouevre is in fact often witty, original, incisive, well-structured, stylish-occasionally even touching. Less surprising adjectives also apply: shocking, daring, extremely graphic, and offensive (to some). In a recent interview with Back Stage West at West Hollywood's French Market, Horwitz asserted: "My pet peeve is the assumption by some that just because a play contains sexy elements and nudity, it is not good theatre." Larsen-who joined us for the interview-added, "We take our work very seriously and work hard to maintain quality. Because I am gay, I get upset when one of my plays doesn't work so well, because I don't want gay audiences to feel that we are trying to rip them off by throwing together schlock for a fast buck, as some producers do. We want to provide them with good entertainment."
More often than not, Larsen fulfills this objective. Though Horwitz cannily markets his plays to emphasize their sex quotient, most of them employ engaging and skillfully structured narratives and provocative settings (such as the self-explanatory Peep Show; Talk Show, inspired by the infamous Jenny Jones Show secret-crush tragedy, and Making Porn, set in the gay porn industry at the dawning of the AIDS epidemic). Shooting Porn, however, is a non-narrative theatre piece based on Larsen's 1998 documentary film of the same name, also set in the gay-porn world.
The production employs a device that has proven highly successful for Larsen and Horwitz during the past few years-the casting of real porn superstars (J. T. Sloan and Chad Donovan), and in this case, a famous porn director (Gino Colbert, playing himself). But it's Larsen who steals the show in a devastating parody of real-life, cross-dressing porn director Chi Chi LaRue, described by Back Stage West critic Wenzel Jones as "too, too funny."
Borrowing heavily from the film but skillfully re-inventing the material in stage terms, Larsen has mounted an enormously entertaining romp that seems destined to become his biggest hit. It's now closing at the Zephyr because the theatre has another booking, but Horwitz indicated it will later resurface. Meanwhile, she plans to bring Larsen's 1997 play 10 Naked Men to town for its "official" West Coast premiere. (Horwitz took the bold and unpopular step of first inviting, then uninviting critics during the 1997 L.A. engagement. She said that the play has undergone many rewrites since then and has enjoyed successful runs in New York and several other cities.)
Porn Is Born
Larsen first hit upon the gambit of featuring real porn personalities during an early engagement of his 1994 play Making Porn, which premiered in Chicago sans skin-flick performers. When he subsequently took the play to San Francisco, he came up with the idea of casting someone he had interviewed when doing research for the play-the late porn performer Scott O'Hara. O'Hara appeared in the play fully clothed, playing the porn director character. Larsen insisted: "Making Porn was not conceived as a vehicle for porn stars. In actuality, it's about the conflict between a director and a producer, and I drew from my own relationship with Caryn as inspiration. When we brought the play to L.A., a lot of porn performers came to see it, and some of them asked if they could be in it. We cast one of them to try it out, and the rest is history."
Various gay-porn icons such as Ryan Idol, Jeff Stryker, and Rex Chandler have toplined Larsen plays in L.A., Off-Broadway, and nationwide. "My recent experiences with porn stars have been great," said Larsen. "But I went through a period where every one I cast turned insane on me. For a while, I didn't even want to cast them anymore, but things have calmed down." The reports of fist fights on Larsen's sets have indeed ceased, but there remains a lot of bad blood. A local gay paper, Fab, has been running a series of vitriolic crossfire pieces between Larsen and some of the porn stars who clashed with him. (The publicity value must be extraordinary.)
Some porn stars who worked with Larsen have also struck out on their own and are now attempting to offer competition, which so far has not presented cause for worry. Stryker starred in a pseudo-play called Hard Time, whose prison-based "narrative" had all of the depth of an actual porn film, but not much titillation-a live porn film minus the porn. The recently closed Ryan Idol vehicle, Mark Dunn's Scent of Rain, at the Tiffany, shoehorned in a few gratuitous nude scenes but was essentially an inane rehash of tired cliches from '60s hillbilly sitcoms: Andy and Opie visit porn land.
Due to the Larsen/Horwitz influence, plays about the gay-porn industry (not all employing porn stars) seem to be popping up everywhere. The (Bad) Boy Next Door, which opened last weekend at the Coast Playhouse, is an autobiographical solo show starring controversial activist Tony Valenzuela, who worked as an HIV-positive gay hooker and porn performer. Divine Thing: The Joey Stefano Story, a highly promising drama by Michael Patrick Spillers (author of the splendid 1997 White Boy), is about the tragic life and death of porn star Stefano. It debuted in December at the St. Genesius in West Hollywood and unfortunately closed after the first weekend, due to behind-the-scenes problems (with nary a porn star in sight). Spillers indicated that a revised version will eventually reopen. Larsen is also preparing a new drama about the industry, which he called the "last play" in his porn trilogy. Death of a Porn Star will chronicle the tragic lives of four real life porn superstars.
There's another notable production that seems inspired by the Larsen/Horwitz phenomenon. Two years ago, when the Celebration Theatre was in dire straits, former artistic director Bob Schrock frankly admitted he was mounting a titillating show to bring money into the theatre's coffers. It seems na™ve not to acknowledge that his idea to fashion a musical revue around the title Naked Boys Singing was inspired by the Larsen title 10 Naked Men. Schrock employed a talented company of songwriters and performers, and came up with a critically lauded crossover hit that ran in L.A. for more than a year and is now meeting with great success Off-Broadway,
Horwitz asserted that different degrees of titillation onstage are accepted in all types of theatre. "In a Broadway musical, when the male chorus take their shirts off, it's sexy. Still, I don't feel that the works that Ronnie and I present depend on sex for their commercial success. The key element is a good story. You can't tell a credible story about a milieu like the gay-porn industry without showing nudity and some sex. Making Porn has played-and continues to play-without porn stars in many productions across the country." Larsen added: "In some cases, it's more commercially viable not to have porn stars, as some demand too much money."
Larsen and Horwitz, who met in Fresno in the early '90s and became fast friends, share a professional relationship based on healthy tension and mutual respect. Larsen elaborated: "Caryn was shocked when she read the first draft of Making Porn. She recognized a fight we had just had the night before. But we can tell each other anything. She'll criticize how I run a rehearsal and I'll make comments about what she wears in the box office." Horwitz chimed in: "We complement each other well. Ronnie describes his vision. Then when it comes time to execute his ideas, he sometimes gets bored, so I get involved in assembling the nuts and bolts."
Larsen feels that the casting of porn stars in plays is not a fleeting phenomenon and will only escalate in the future. There are even signs that the innovations of the duo might be extending into more mainstream theatre. Said Horwitz, "The New Conservatory Theatre of San Francisco wrote Gino Colbert a letter asking if he could help them find some porn stars for one of their plays."
It's hard to imagine a time when Larsen's bold and bawdy works will be accepted by everyone. They will always be a not-my-cup-of-tea thing for many. But those who sample his plays might be surprised at the craft and traditional storytelling techniques that drive his work. Larsen and Horwitz might be laughing all the way to the bank, but they also do their damnedest to make sure the audiences laugh along with them.
Ronnie Larsen is expansive in every sense of the word: chatty, generous, lustrously fat. As he shambles down the aisle of the Actors’ Playhouse, an overstuffed grocery bag swinging from each hand, all three of these qualities are in evidence. “I . . . have . . . cookies!” he shouts. An actor approaches him, burbling concerns about her blocking. “Have a cookie,” he tells her. His producer has a logistical problem to discuss. “Have a cookie,” Larsen repeats. A visitor walks through the door. “Are you the guy from L.A.?” the producer asks. Larsen: “Cookie?” He has bought eight large boxes of them -- for a company of twelve.
It’s practically impossible not to see this young playwright and director in terms of his oral fixations and outsize appetites. When Larsen speaks, he filters almost nothing -- confessions follow endearing indiscretions following more confessions -- and his sentences come out in a high-speed whir, like a printer on its fastest setting. And when he writes, he tends to focus on one thing: sex.
“At this point, it really has gotten out of control,” Larsen confesses. “This obsession with sex has taken over my life.”
Perhaps, but it has also made the affable, 29-year-old Larsen -- a lapsed Mormon and three-time college dropout -- an infamous and rather wealthy young man. In this era of Giuliani and Disney neo-Puritanism, he has successfully transformed the 170-seat Actors’ Playhouse into a home for his plays about the sex industry, all of which contain enough bare buns to stock a bakery. 10 Naked Men, a parable about male prostitution in Hollywood, closed last month after netting $100,000. Before that, Making Porn, a comedy-cum-exposé about the making of gay skin flicks, raked in more than $2 million (and still counting: Productions will soon open in London, Sydney, and Berlin). Porn was an instant cult sensation, a literal money shot; it stayed at the Playhouse for more than a year, spawned clones around the country, and at times was running in three cities simultaneously. For a while, a rotating crew of real porn stars even studded the ensemble. Devotees would come running back to the theater for every cast change, just to see their favorite new pork chop in the lead.
“Putting naked men in a play, whatever the play’s relative merits, is guaranteed a certain kind of success at the box office,” muses Tony Kushner, author of the Pulitzer-winning Angels in America -- which did not feature naked men, and did not turn a profit on Broadway. “His shows are the Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding of the gay world,” agrees Elise Harris, an editor at Out magazine. “Actually, they’re the chitlin circuit of the gay world -- low-rent, identity-based. At a time when hip gay playwrights are running as fast as they can from gay content, he’s doing gay underwear theater. I think that’s great.”
Larsen’s latest production, however, doesn’t have the same ready-made gay male constituency. Peep Show, which opened last week, is set in a gritty Eighth Avenue girlie palace and follows the lives of four female booth dancers, their johns, and their johns’ wives. In light of recent anti-porn zoning developments, one would think there’d be an equally large (if not larger) heterosexual market for a play with girls, girls, girls. “But it’s been hard to sell,” admits producer Caryn Horwitz, an ex-criminologist from Fresno. “Gay people have no problem going to see shows about sex. It’s not the same thing with straight people.”
If Peep Show fails, though, heterosexual prudishness won’t be the only reason. Making Porn and 10 Naked Men worked because porn daddies and hustlers are familiar, intriguing, and beefy targets for parody; both shows had the wit and rat-a-tat pacing of well-made sitcoms. But female sex workers can hardly be held up as figures of fun when the stench of exploitation hangs so noxiously over their world. And Peep Show, as it turns out, isn’t typical Larsen: It’s not chock-full of barbed, culture-specific in-jokes. It’s surprisingly bland when it isn’t discomfiting, and that’s a tough sell -- unless Larsen recruits female porn stars to give the show some more buzz and campy appeal.
Whatever he decides, Peep Show inadvertently exposes one of Larsen’s dirtiest secrets: His plays, though billed as racy and lurid, aren’t much of either. The sex is simulated and untitillating, the monty only occasionally full. The two things that Larsen does best, in fact, are the two things that blue films do worst: humor and plot. In the opening monologue of 10 Naked Men, the narrator goes so far as to confess: “Actually, the title has nothing to do with the play at all. But it got you here, didn’t it?” So there’s the rub: No matter how apt Larsen is at depicting hustlers, he’s even better at hustling an audience.
Larsen, whose personal nut comes to $10,000 per month (he has apartments in both New York and L.A., and phone bills of $1,000-plus), readily admits he isn’t out to create enduring works of art. “I don’t think Making Porn is a great play,” he says. “I don’t think it deserves a Tony or an Obie. But I think it’s entertaining.” He pauses. “Besides, I don’t want a Tony anymore. I want to buy my mother a house.” Another pause. “Though maybe I do think about commerciality too much. I’ve made so much money.” Then again: “All the great playwrights have made a bundle. Ibsen, Mamet, O’Neill, Chekhov. Even Molière. These people weren’t starving in basements.”
For a while, Larsen was.
A Bakersfield native, he started his own Shakespeare company in Fresno at age 19, and for five years he did a string of deconstructive, unusual, and unremunerative productions. Eventually, he redirected his energies into writing frothier, more salable shows, starting with Scenes From My Love Life, a romp about his experimental days as a sex-club hopper and personal-ad junkie.
Larsen assumes that all of us, given the chance, would also choose lucre over art. “Anyone could be had for a price,” he says breezily. “I’m sure if I said to George Wolfe, ‘Here’s $100,000; direct my next play,’ he’d consider it -- don’t you think?” I tell him I don’t know. George Wolfe directed Angels in America and Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk. He runs the Public, one of the oldest nonprofit theaters in New York. His priorities might lie elsewhere. “You think?” he says. He cups his head in his hands, ponders for a moment, then dismisses the idea. “Well, what if I gave him $2 million? $3 million?” he says. “Don’t you think he’d do it then?”
by Greg Evans
New York Producer Caryn Horwitz was once set to mount David Dillon's gay comedy "Party" in San Francisco where she had a falling out with the playwright. The usual creative differences, of course. "He thinks his play is about family values," Horwitz sats, "and we all know it's about nudity, right? Nudity helps sell a show. I'll be the first to admit that.
As plain-spoken as she is, Horwitz, 42 and a former criminology professor, might have no choice but to admit the marketing value of frontal flesh. On May 16 her first New York production, Ronnie Larsen's "Making Porn" celebrated it's one year anniversary at the Actor's Playhouse Off Broadway. The little play featuring big male porn stars - and just how big they are can be seen by anyone plunking down $35 for a ticket - has joined the "Long-Running Shows" list in the New York Times' Sunday Arts & Leisure guide, sandwiched alphabetically between "The King & I" and "Master Class."
Like its lead character - a reluctant porn star who just wants to act - "Making Porn has satisfied itself with the kind of payoff that has eluded any number of more artistically ambitious plays that have come and gone over the past year. Financed at a meager 50,000, the play (which boasts a come-hither "warning" of "Nudity and Strong Language") recouped its capitalization after just four weeks and has routinely grossed anywhere from $15,000 to $40,000 a week. With operating costs of $10,000, the productions provides a tidy profit stream.
A San Francisco production moves to Atlanta in June, and Horwitz will open a third company for Detroit the same month. Runs are planned around the country, with London a possibility for the Fall. Return engagements are planned for Chicago, L.A., and San Francisco. "We were playing 100-seaters, now we're going to 300-seaters," Horwitz says. With out-of-town profits averaging 5,000 to 6,000 a week, Horwitz and Larsen were able to finance Larsen's film debut, a 250,000 documentary on the gay porn industry called "Shooting Porn".
As for the play, the success of the New York production is a minor triumph of target marketing, linked in no small way to the star casting. While she's the first to admit that the play's nudity is the star attraction, Horwitz, (who will produce Larsen's new play, "Talk Show" at the Actor's Playhouse in the fall) says few porn stars have the staying power to draw audiences.
"Ryan Idol made our numbers go over the top," says Horwitz. "The others, while it's fun to have them, don't really have much impact at the box office. Before we came to New York, we played for a year and half without a porn star. We're not necessarily gimmick-driven even if people do think we're the Grease of Off Broadway."