Legit scripter-helmer Rick Pagano, a casting director for film and TV, has certainly gathered an accomplished, dedicated ensemble for his episodic peek into the pseudo-comical machinations within a small-town brothel run by a philosophical, down-to-earth Madam (Wendy Phillips). Pagano utilizes the concept of a “trick” as the common ground between magic and prostitution, a metaphor for the illusion, fantasy and suspension of disbelief inherent in both professions. What he has wrought are a few beautifully constructed character studies, buried within a generally chaotic jumble of misconceived vignettes.
The irreverent tone of each brothel scene is set up by a life-jaundiced magician (Albie Selznick) and his nubile, scantily clad assistant (Jossara Jinaro). Despite the assistant’s efforts to remain perky and helpful, the magician descends ever further into self-pitying disillusion, lamenting the uselessness of his efforts as he counts off each of his required routines. Selznick evokes the spiritual weariness of the magician while proving to be quite adroit at the simple slight-of-hand deceptions; unfortunately, his character is undermined by Pagano’s unfocused, meandering text.
This lack of a strong, centered dramatic throughline permeates most of the fleeting brothel encounters that tumble awkwardly onto the Elephant Lab’s limited stage area. A self-important TV comedian (Damien Leake) fails to negotiate a mutually agreeable price with a youthful hooker (Brittany Ishibashi) clad in schoolgirl attire. A wealthy Italian (Richard Gleason) offers more talk than action in his encounter with a voluptuous lass named Florida (Jinaro). A physically disciplined yogi (Raymond Cruz) demonstrates too much endurance for a bored brothel resident (Molly Brink). A nervous customer (Sam Hennings) is easily manipulated by the unemotional, take-charge efforts of his lady of the night (Ishibashi).
Some scenes have nothing to do with the brothel but suffer the same lack of focus. A British film director (Gleason) attempts to describe the degrading nature of a role to an auditioning actress (Brink); in a later scene, the same director tries to convince a temperamental young actress (Ishibashi) that the overt sex scenes she will have to portray in her role as a geisha will be filmed with the utmost taste. Also away from the brothel, an opportunistic limo driver (Hennings) puts the moves on a paid escort (Ishibashi) he is delivering to his boss.
Within the general arbitrariness of Pagano’s progression of short scenes, there are some encouraging dramatic nuggets. Leake offers an endearing portrait of a well-traveled African American jazz trumpeter whose visit to the brothel cannot assuage the deep grief he still suffers at the memory of his deceased wife. Leake is also quite impressive as an aging, wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet who rails against a society where he and other men of color are sent off to foreign lands to be killed or maimed so that the white man can continue to indulge in his carnal pleasures.
One comically intriguing scene features a self-possessed female CEO (Brink) who gets more than she bargains for from her encounter with a deceptively brutish hustler (Cruz) who just may be her intellectual equal. The highlight of the evening is a Tennessee Williams-esque encounter between a dissolute older Southern gentleman (Hennings) and a silently compliant young Spanish-speaking male prostitute (Cruz). Hennings is wonderfully droll as the vodka-swilling older man attempts to give intellectual veracity to what turns out to be a straightforward act of fellatio.
Phillips, who is scheduled to turn her role of the madam over to Susan Blakely, is convincing as the middle-aged hometown girl who made bad. If this work is to have legs, Pagano should discard much of the scenic debris and put more focus on the briefly stated but undeveloped relationship between the madam and her girls. That would give much needed depth and substance to the vignettes that deserve further development.