Pop culture takes center stage

Young dramatists turn to '80s icons, cult faves for legit inspiration

Forget drawing from Shakespeare, Ibsen and Greek tragedy. . . Young dramatists are churning out plays inspired by cult movies, trashy TV and their own pop culture icons.

That means not only Paris Hilton and Ben Affleck but hoary classics from the ’80s, which young folk have picked up on and fallen for through now ubiquitous reruns.

In some cases the icons are treated, well, iconically; in others, there’s a hint of parody or ambivalence.

Consider these additions to the boards:

“You See Us as You Want to See Us … Reflections From ‘The Breakfast Club,’ ” which coincides with the film’s 20th anni.

“I Love Paris,” a one-man (yes, man) show about Paris Hilton and “Pieces (of Ass),” a series of monologues about the hardships of being an attractive woman, which includes a succession of guest celebs –like Rachel Hunter or Jamie Lynn DiScala — sharing their real-life experiences.

The Off Broadway play “Fatal Attraction: A Greek Tragedy,” an adaptation of the film, will star ’80s child star Corey Feldman in the Michael Douglas role when it begins in June.

Other recent pop culture phenoms include “Matt & Ben,” about Matt Damon and Ben Affleck; “The Golden Girls: LIVE!,” which featured staged versions of two episodes of the ’80s sitcom and “It’s Karate, Kid! The Musical.”

The trend has even affected high-profile mainstream fare on the Great White Way.

Gary Coleman is a main character in “Avenue Q,” and the show as a whole is a riff on “Sesame Street.”

The Broadway production of “Legends!” — about two fading, feuding actresses featuring Joan Collins and Linda Evans — will play on auds’ memories of the thesps’ roles on “Dynasty.”

Putting pop culture into theater obviously isn’t a new idea.

Second Stage, for instance, put up the one-man show “Rush Limbaugh in Night School” in 1995. John Guare’s 1990 play “Six Degrees of Separation” centers on a man who claims to be Sidney Poitier’s son. Even Aristophanes’ original version of “The Frogs” included a debate between Aeschylus and Euripides, celeb scribes of in ancient Greece.

But rather than taking the pop culture source material at face value, as “Hairspray” and “Good Vibrations” do, this fringier wave satirizes its subjects.

The twenty- and thirtysomethings who are creating and watching these shows grew up in the 1980s and 90s, which marked the beginning of new nets and cablers — MTV, VH1, Fox, WB, UPN — aimed specifically at young people.

Thus these young people absorbed much of their pop culture from TV, including reruns of older fare. Moreover, the rise of the VCR allowed young people to develop an obsession with movies like “The Breakfast Club” as they watched them over and over again.

“No one sits around talking about Paul Auster as much as they do ‘The Karate Kid.’ You get in a group and that’s the common ground. People talk with passion about the best ever episode of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ more than I’ve ever talked about news,” says Paul Scheer, a commentator on VH1’s “Best Week Ever.”

Sometimes satire is born when the creators of a play can’t get the rights they want.

Dana Discordia, the exec producer of the “Breakfast Club” show, could not get the rights to the pic, so he decided to parody it.

And the Empty Stage Theater company created “Who Killed Woody Allen?” — a murder mystery with celeb suspects such as Diane Keaton and Leonardo DiCaprio — when Allen’s lawyers yanked the troupe’s rights to produce Allen’s play “Death.”

But the main reason these shows turn to pop culture is because they get instant publicity.

“It’s an easy sell to walk around and say we’re doing this parody of ‘The Breakfast Club,’ ” says Discordia. “It sells itself.”

The New York Fringe Festival is filled with shows that try to stand out from the pack by referencing celebs.

Last year’s list included “Nicky Goes Goth,” about Nicky Hilton, and “Martha & Me: A Musical,” about a woman obsessed with Martha Stewart.

The Fringe gave birth to “Matt & Ben,” the poster child for this pop theater trend. It transferred to Off Broadway, where it recouped its $100,000 cost in eight weeks and ran for 10 months. There are 30-odd productions in the works worldwide, says Victoria Lang, one of the play’s Off Broadway producers.

“If you can have some kind of recognition factor, you’re going to have a leg up,” says Lang. “I put Matt and Ben’s picture right on the poster. And no, they never came to see it.”

Pop theater doesn’t always make money, however.

Both “Barbra’s Wedding,” about Barbra Streisand’s nosy neighbors, and “Debbie Does Dallas,” the musical parody of the porn film that also jumped from the Fringe to Off Broadway, closed prematurely.

Also, many of these shows are rather far down on the financial food chain. The “Breakfast Club” show at the 99-seat Kraine Theater might not even make back its meager $11,000 capitalization.

Even in pop theater, quality counts.

For “Matt & Ben,” Lang hired an experienced director, David Warren, who guided the project as the writers made revisions.

“We made certain that it stood alone as a play and not just as a pop-culture reference,” Lang says.

Elena K. Holy, the Fringe’s producing artistic director, says that the best of these shows delve into deeper inquiries. “What’s the cult of personality that we’re all living under?” she suggests. “How is that influencing us?”

After all, many of these artists are ambivalent about their source material. As Timothy Haskell, who directed “I Love Paris,” sums it up, “I’m skewering it and praising it at the same time.”

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