WHAT: “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie,” written and directed by Jim Fitzmorris and starring Bunny Love, Justin Welborn and Kimberly Kaye
WHEN: 6 p.m. Sunday (June 26); Thursday-Sunday (June 30-July 3)
WHERE: The Theatre at St. Claude, 2240 St. Claude Ave.
MORE INFO: Click here
Jim Fitzmorris wears his influences on his sleeve. Or, in the case of “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie,” on his plays’ title, and on the spare stage of his latest work that opened this weekend at his Theatre at St. Claude. Movie posters of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” and rows of DVDs from The Criterion Collection fill the stage and prompt snippets of dialogue from the characters, but clearly they’re laid bare as if transported from Fitzmorris’ home, or brain.
So when smooth-talking and wise-cracking beverage vendor (Justin Welborn) shows up on the soft opening of a nightclub venture and starts flirting with the co-owner and featured performer (Bunny Love), their shared of love of ’70s crime films by Cassavetes, Polanski and Coppola, the audience immediately knows that this is Fitzmorris at his most reverential and referential. But almost as immediately, as a flirtation turns to threats and then into terror and then into intrigue and possibly back again, the audience also recognizes another Fitzmorris passion: complexity. It’s the complexity of motivations, of desire and even of language that often motors Fitzmorris’s works, and while they’re often challenging to follow, they’re always worth the ride.
“The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie” is an uptempo and bumpy ride in which allegiances switch with every “reveal,” a popular word in a show and with burlesque undertones. (Fitzmorris, also a frequent chronicler of New Orleans’ burlesque scene, knows this as well as he does movies.) As the co-owner of the Triple Lexxx club, Bunny Love can practically live the role, having performed for several years in New York City’s gritty neo-burlesque scene. She returned to New Orleans a couple years ago, bringing her New York sensibilities to shows such as Bella Blue’s “Dirty Dime Peepshow” while increasingly elevating her theater profile. So when she recounts a seedy story of life as a stripper, as with Fitzmorris you almost want to believe it comes from her own experiences. But you can’t dwindle on the thought for very long in this 70-minute one-act play. The action’s too fast.
The play starts off with Lexxxi ready to open her nightclub, for which she’s scrimped and saved to open and make her meal ticket after years in the business, with the help of her lover (played by a twitching Kimberly Kaye). Those plans are compromised by the appearance of Irish, who presents himself as the beverage supplier for the club, and the two strike up a conversation that goes beyond business.
It’s just when Irish senses Lexxxi’s loyalty to her partner has its own motivations that he reveals (at least one of) his own after a frantic phone call from her partner, a part-time bookie who warns Lexxxi that Irish has come to kill her. Hanging up the phone, Lexxxi can only keep her poker face for so long before Irish explains his presence:“Bookie” owes debtors for huge gambling losses built on Lexxxi’s money. But he tries to calm her down with the slightly reassuring thought: “I’m the second-to-the-last person you want to see. … In politics and crime, there’s always a second-to-the-last-guy.” Lexxxi, twisting around their previous flirting, responds, “You watch too many movies … so you’re Tom Hagen (of ‘The Godfather’ fame)?”
Irish offers a proposal — more a less-worse option — in which Lexxxi signs the club over to him so he can gain control of it (and Lexxxi) to help pay off the debt as long as Bookie disappears.
A tight cast makes great work of a tight though sometimes dense script, with Justin Welborn (FX’s “Justified”) bringing a pitch-perfect mix of cynicism, swagger and a sliver of vulnerability to his role. He could either try to dominate the stage as the lone male character or get lost in a lover’s quarrel, but he does neither, and it’s a neat trick. It is only fitting that his character once was an aspiring movie mogul, playing on Welborn’s own movie experience. And Kaye’s nervous intensity crackles throughout the show, even at times drawing in the audience’s sympathy with her own vulnerability. Through her desperation we still see another soul trying hard, like the others, not to be lost. If they all need a few moments in the early going to get their footing with the script, they all hit their stride quickly enough.
They do this just in time for a cleverly conceived passage in which exposition is revealed in a three-way dialogue between them, told partly in present time and also in flashback, with each character alternating in filling in the holes. It’s all wordplay as gunplay, of which there’s plenty already.
So much about “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie” is about control, which makes it that much more interesting when Lexxxi explains why she favors burlesque over stripping: “Because it gives the illusion that the audience is in control … the only decisions are mine.” Once every character has explained their angle in this love triangle, it’s Lexxxi’s call.
Jim Fitzmorris bills the play as his first full-length piece since “A Truckload of Ink,” which he followed up with such works as his brilliant manifesto-monologue, “Be a New Orleanian.” He’s found a home for his works at The Theatre at St. Claude, with an intimate space that David Raphel makes great use of in his set design. Su Gonzcy works the lighting deftly in what amounts to two adjoining rooms, and Dana Marie Embree’s costumes blur the lines between the ’70s and the present day.
And yet, watching this compressed treat, I can’t help but wonder if “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie” could be something a little grander — like, say, a burlesque musical where Lexxxi’s dreams of a fabulous nightclub come to life, with music and dance numbers as eloquent as Fitzmorris’ rapid-fire dialogues and monologues. That’s not so much a criticism as a wish. This work is already more fully realized in narrative structure and prose than its casual inspiration, John Cassavetes’ 1976 arthouse noir, “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.” As good as this play is, you sense the possibilities of something even grander.
I guess that’s the point of burlesque: Always leave the audience wanting more.