Torn Between Two Bitches @ The Unknown Theater

Written by Brian M. Clark

New%20Image%20%28Custom%29%20%282%29.JPGIf you’ve ever sat through one of the unfunny sketches featured on Mad TV or Saturday Night Live, wherein a mediocre actor lampoons a famous politician or celebrity to whom they bear no resemblance whatsoever; caricatures said politician or celebrity poorly and exaggeratedly, and brings zero insight or real humor through the cartoonish parody of said politician or celebrity – and the whole thing drags on well beyond the point at which it ceased even being amusing – then you have a pretty good idea of what the play Torn Between Two Bitches is all about.

The title refers to the predicament in which the play’s main character, Jim Goat, finds himself. Having gained notoriety with his coconspirator and wife Debbie as a misanthropic underground ‘zine personality in the 1990s, Jim relocated from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon, and subsequently became romantically involved with a psychotic stripper/fan who publishes her own anti-social ‘zine. Self-consumed, drugged up and torn between these two bitches, Goat finally ditches his wife, neurotically freaks out, beats up his girlfriend and winds up in jail. The story, of course, is that of Jim Goad, and is based – in its entirety – on the autobiography he penned behind bars, Shit Magnet.

Goad garnered underground infamy by self-publishing a controversial magazine in the '90s called ANSWER Me! with his then wife Debbie, out of their apartment in Los Angeles. The two moved to Portland where their marriage subsequently collapsed, Debbie was diagnosed with cancer, Jim wrote a book called The Redneck Manifesto, hooked up with a nutty fan/stripper named Sky... Debbie's cancer killed her, Jim and Sky's relationship devolved into one of utter dysfunction and abuse, Jim eventually beat Sky up and went to jail for two years for it. While incarcerated he put pen to paper and recounted the sordid details of the whole saga in Shit Magnet, which was published by Feral House books in 2002. It's an intense, vitriolic book; at turns funny and insightful, but mostly a brutally honest downer of a memoir from someone with nothing but time on his hands to mull over all the ways in which things have gone wrong for him in life. For some reason, playwright/actor Michael Sargent thought this would translate well to a two-hour play. Unsurprisingly, it does not.

First and foremost among the flaws in Torn Between Two Bitches, is the fact that it doesn't hold up as a thing in and of itself. It is a point-for-point parody of the latter half of the story told in Shit Magnet, and if one hasn't read that book, one is likely to be left wondering why the small audience of mostly indy-rock-looking hipster types is laughing at an array of events transpiring on stage which just simply aren't funny. And though Sargent apparently maintains that his story is only "loosely" based on Goad's autobiographical work, the parallels are so direct that you'd have be a complete idiot not to see exactly which elements of the play correspond precisely to those in Goad's text.

For what are presumably legal reasons, in this theatrical adaptation, Jim and Debbie Goad become Jim and Debbie "Goat"; Sky becomes "Sunshine"; ANSWER Me! is "Don't Buy This 'Zine" (there's a "suicide issue," a "murder issue," and a "rape issue"); The Redneck Manifesto is "The White Trash Handbook", and so on and so forth. The play is performed by a mere four actors: Michael Sargent (Jim Goat), Liz Davies (Debbie Goat), Brittany Slattery (Sunshine) and Tina Preston (a nameless waitress). A live soundtrack is provided throughout the show by a surprisingly talented two-man rock band called Elemenopy, who warm up the crowd prior to the play with stripped-down renditions of Nirvana's "Rape Me," The Beatles' "Helter Skelter" and L.L. Cool J's "I'm Gonna Knock You Out"; all unnecessarily explained to the audience as being apropos for the evening since they relate to rape, serial killers and violence.

The action begins with actor/writer Michael Sargent taking the stage as Goat, half-heartedly jerking off and snorting drugs off a mirror in his dingy apartment, the walls of which are adorned with serial killer art and framed copies of Don't Buy This Zine. Sargent's brand of acting falls into the same, overly exuberant school as Jim Carrey's "Fire Marshall Bill" character from In Living Color or Dave Chapelle doing Rick James on Chapelle's Show. Everything about his portrayal of Goat is overstated, over-gestured and over-enunciated. He makes big, cartoonish facial expressions of rage and frustration, exaggeratedly shrugging his shoulders or sullenly sulking around the stage like a five year-old after a temper tantrum. When he's not occupied with inhaling drugs or molesting the Sunshine character, Sargent yells, swings his arms around, stomps across the stage, slams doors, and generally acts like a loud, overbearing, obnoxious and abrasive lout. He delivers Goat's lines in a whiny, nasally, grating voice and hangs on his vowels as annoyingly long as possible ("People are so stuuupid! I mean, you put a swaaastikaaa and a picture of Hiiitler on the cover of your 'ziiine, and they think you're a friggin' Naaaziii! What iiidiots! I'm not a raaaacist - I hate everybody eeeequally!"). Despite all of this, Sargent's larger-than-life portrayal of Goat apparently still isn't enough to hammer home the idea that the character is a buffoon; so Sargent regularly looks over to the audience and delivers his lines with a knowing wink and a smirk, prompting them for a laugh. Since his performance is so consistently animated, one can only assume that without such overt cues on his part, audience members simply wouldn't have any idea as to which parts of the play were intended to be funny.

The three female characters all play second fiddle to the male lead, and it would be difficult for them to do otherwise. Sunshine, played by the young Brittany Slattery, is supposed to be a drunk teenaged stripper obsessed with Jim Goat - and she does a pretty good job of it - but even her semi-clad attempts at sexy booze-addled psychosis are overshadowed by Sargent's inflated portrayal of the boorish Goat. It's all about Goat - that is the central idea of the play, after all. Goat immaturely and selfishly gets angry at Debbie for being diagnosed with cancer, he obsesses about his reception by the public, he fixates on the idea of maintaining his underground cred, he overanalyzes the paradoxical perils of succeeding at antiestablishment rebelliousness on a mainstream level; and so on. All the while, the Debbie character chides him about his failures and shortcomings, as well as his interminable, self-induced misery. She too has her moments of nuttiness in the play, but ultimately, she's the voice of pragmatism and reason out of the three central characters and thus is overshadowed by the flailing shenanigans of Jim and Sunshine.

Over the course of two hours or so, these three characters re-enact a condensed version of the latter half of Shit Magnet, with minor details changed, and all of them behaving oafishly throughout. The play dismissively glosses over the real Goad's ideas, politics, and anything remotely serious that might be contained in his writings, and quickly descends into base-level ad hominem, with jabs at Goat's hair plugs, nose job, tattoo and so on. Throughout the performance, Elemenopy intermittently break into a Torn Between Two Bitches theme-song which reminds the audience that for Jim Goat "fucking the two of you is breaking all the rules" and concludes with the sentiment that he is nonetheless "a douche."

At one point toward the end of the play, Goat flies into a rage, and in an attempt at theatrical realism on the part of Sargent and Slattery, a half-full champagne bottle flies across the stage, smashing into a piece of prop furniture and sending its contents careening to the floor, while Slattery/Sunshine is pushed behind the bed. As the lights dim, she lies hidden from view (putting on black-eye makeup), while Goat - his back to the audience, shoulders exaggeratedly heaving in rage - shouts, "Why did you make me do that to you? Answer me... answer me... ANSWER Me!"

Following a brief intermission, a fully bearded and Manson-esque looking Goat is now in jail, Debbie loves him again despite her newfound religiosity, he's miserable and yet he somehow masochistically digs the incarceration... and yadda, yadda, yadda. Around this point I slumped into my seat and proceeded to zone-out and get loaded on the "denotations only" Newcastle Brown Ale provided at the bar, because the plot didn't really go anywhere from there and it was all so mind-numbingly tedious by then anyway.

The impression that I walked away with was that the main thrust of Torn Between Two Bitches was simply to illustrate, in multifarious ways, with a proverbial bullhorn, that Jim Goad - excuse me, Jim Goat - is a narcissistic, insecure, self-obsessed, psychotic, violent, impulsive, selfish, all-around asshole... and that's about it. Unless I missed something pivotal, this is the alpha and omega of Torn Between Two Bitches: Jim's a big meanie jerk idiot. The real Goad being the countercultural pariah that he is, demonstrating this point would hardly be an accomplishment even if it were successful, which it wasn't. For me, it failed. Sargent's sight-gag portrayal of Jim Goat might have gone over well in the silent era of film, or in a large theatre without the assistance of microphones and some distance between the performers and the audience; but in the slightly claustrophobic 50-seat atmosphere of The Unknown Theatre, it just came off as overwrought, labored and clownish at best. Moreover, regardless of what one thinks of Jim, Debbie and Sky as people or writers, Torn Between Two Bitches just plain isn't funny. It's is billed as a "Blistering World Premier Comedy" in its promotional materials, but I was never once moved to laughter throughout the performance. I suppose - and this is just a maybe here - the play could sort of work as a satire if you happened to be neck deep in the 'zine scene of the 1990s, you followed the rise and fall of ANSWER Me!, you read Shit Magnet... and yet you generally dislike Jim Goad and would enjoy seeing him made fun of in a juvenile sort of way for two hours straight. Then I could see it being amusing. Otherwise, it's probably not your bag.

Unfortunately, I can't say that the rest of the audience that night shares my view. The twenty or so other people in attendance - middle-aged hipsters, booshie middle-class wine-sippers and aging hippies - generally found the whole thing uproariously hilarious. In the same way that diehard White supremacists will forcedly laugh at pretty much any stupid joke related to Blacks, Latinos and Jews - regardless of how successful its attempt at humor may be - so too did much of the audience that night find everything about the skewering of Jim Goat to be gut-bustingly funny. They sniggered and giggled at all sorts of moments that just struck me as odd or surreal, and anything but funny. The general mood of the event was thus sort of like how I'd imagine a bunch of feminist lesbians putting on a satirical play about George W. Bush at their local Free Trade café; that is to say, whether or not any of it was actually clever, funny, or the least bit well written, they're all going to damn well laugh their heads off, regardless.

Its warm reception aside, when the actors finally exited the stage I was left wondering what the actual point of the play was. The story is lifted entirely from Shit Magnet, with only the barest perfunctory details changed and the tone inverted from one of explanatory self-defense to that of cartoonish ridicule. The playwright was clearly mocking Goad, but didn't make much real commentary on him or his writings, aside from just trying to portray him as an all around asshole. That said, it seems to me that in the end Torn Between Two Bitches ultimately refutes its own argument: Jim Goad is a boorish self-obsessed jerk whose work is negligible and forgettable, but someone nevertheless went to all the trouble of putting on an entire fucking play about it to remind us of just how genuinely interesting and ultimately unforgettable it all actually is.

No?

I also think that there's a certain level of hypocrisy underlying the premise of Torn Between Two Bitches, which leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Writer/actor Sargent portrays Jim Goat as an incorrigible narcissist, but at least half of this is conveyed through the physicality of his body language as an actor. Sargent/Goat has long, flowing hair which he exaggeratedly flings about and pulls back like a conceited rock star throughout the play, to imply Goat's vanity. Flamboyantly over-gesturing with his hands and swooping is head in a drag queen-esque sort of way, Sargent's preening mannerisms are far more suggestive of a pampered member of Poison or Cynderella in their heyday than of the violent, faux-redneck writer striving for nihilistic authenticity which he makes Goat out to be. Moreover, Sargent - who has the svelte, six-packed body of a male underwear model - spends the vast majority of the performance shamelessly showcasing it, prancing about the stage shirtless, wearing nothing but a loose-fitting pair of jeans that barely cling to his ass. Sargent even writes into the script several excuses to parade around fully nude, his flaccid dick either flopping around freely or shoved in the face of his young co-star - none of which adds anything to the story whatsoever. So the critique of Goad's narcissism rings pretty hollow to me, coming from a writer/actor who casts himself as the star of a play in which he invents his own excuses to run around naked and flash his dick at everyone. So too does Sargent's critique of Goad as being "edgy for the sake of being edgy," when he can certainly be accused of doing pretty much the same thing himself - inserting pointless nudity into a play and thereby reaping the benefit of an "edgy" cautionary warning on its promo materials.

Similarly, Sky - as Sunshine - is portrayed as a sleazy slut for publishing photographs of herself nude, candidly writing about her sex life in her 'zine, and simply being a stripper - yet the actress who plays her spends a fair amount of her stage-time with her top off, pretending to suck Jim Goat's dick, or faking being fucked or beaten by him. So again, the play's critique rings a little hollow for me: How is taking a photo of yourself nude, in private, and publishing it in an underground magazine somehow substantively different from being nude in what is essentially a public setting under the guise of "art"? I've got nothing against either per se, but I do wonder how it's supposed to make sense that one is presented as the behavior of a skanky, attention-starved slut, while the other is received as just a career move in a young actress's path to success. Or am I missing something?

The subtext to Torn Between Two Bitches is that the characters are all degenerate, irredeemably fucked-up people; but regardless of whether or not that's actually the case with the real people the play lampoons, in the very act of playing Jim and Sunshine the actors demonstrate that they aren't exactly paragons of temperate virtue themselves. With all the dicks and tits flopping around in front of an audience - and the making light of domestic violence, incest and drug abuse - one wonders exactly why the play's author sees fit to obliquely deem ANSWER Me! "foul" in its promotional materials, but dubs his own work a "blistering comedy." In my view, all of this renders the play's mockery of Goad and company a little bit insincere, if not totally disingenuous.

Certainly ANSWER Me! was at times exploitative of the misery of people its authors never knew. Both it and its creators are far from beyond criticism, and both have been much criticized. But make no mistake that Torn Between Two Bitches is no less exploitative; it's a bunch of D-list actors in an independent Hollywood theatre trying to "make it" in showbiz by making fun of the dysfunctional lives of real people - particularly easy targets, actually - about whom they've only got the barest of surface knowledge. There's nothing inherently "wrong" in either case per se, but the difference between the two is that at least ANSWER Me! was honest, blunt and unrepentant about its aims and motivations, whereas Torn Between Two Bitches has the arrogance to be self righteous, derivative, hypocritical, and perhaps worst of all, not even goddamned funny.

So - tempting as it may be for 'zine scenesters nostalgic for the '90s - I'd advise readers to save their $24.00 ticket price (and two hours of their lives), and avoid Torn Between Two Bitches. Unless you've read Shit Magnet and are predisposed to dislike Jim Goad, the play just simply isn't funny. If you must descend into the realm of local theatre this weekend, at least go see something that the playwright hasn't patently ripped off from the author he's making fun of.

October 10, 2008 - November 1, 2008 Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm Sundays at 6pm Unknown Theater: 1110 Seward Street Los Angeles, CA 90038 (323) 466-7781

Art by Billy Spicer. Used with Permission.