nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
January 24, 2007
The program notes for Michael Scott-Price's new drama, Hustler, WI, state that it is "a live performance inspired by such films as Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Mean Streets, and Dog Day Afternoon." By which I assume that Hustler, WI seeks to emulate the same oppressive sense of disillusionment and alienation those films so expertly evoke. Scott-Price's play features a motley crew of fringe characters—a hooker, a pimp, and a john—none of whom would be out of place in the worlds of Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, or Michael Cimino. But, unfortunately, that is where the similarities end. In its quest to imitate and pay homage to its predecessors, Hustler, WI opts for form over content, scratching its story's edgy surface without plumbing its character's tortured souls.
The story, which is set in contemporary New York, begins with Kiki, a street hooker, being clumsily approached by Clarence, who may or may not be a potential customer. He's cloaked in a trenchcoat, sunglasses, and a baseball cap, and is so overcome by shyness and embarrassment that he can barely get a word out. Obviously, Clarence is not a ladies man, and he knows it. Once Kiki's pimp—a white guy in a powder blue leisure suit named Bags—shows up, Clarence reveals that he wants to conquer his awkwardness with women by becoming a pimp himself. Kiki and Bags are skeptical at first, but once Clarence proves he's not an undercover vice cop, they agree to help him. Besides, there's something in it for them: Bags is in debt up to his eyeballs, and Clarence is willing to pay handsomely for lessons.
If all of this sounds a little far-fetched, that's because it is. Hustler, WI throws logic out the window from the get-go, and never looks back. What makes Clarence think that his plan is a good idea? The play never examines the depth of his desperation enough to reveal why he chooses this path. Why does Bags, a man who is admittedly trying to keep a low profile, act so conspicuously on the street—shouting, wildly gesticulating, and wearing an outfit that would embarrass Clyde Frazier? Why does Bags spend so much time talking to Clarence, whom he clearly despises and is suspicious of? Why does Clarence show two strangers (and obvious criminals) his driver's license and business card in order to prove he's not a cop? And, what pimp takes a personal check?! These questions, and many more, are left woefully unanswered.
I'll admit, Hustler, WI does have some good moments, namely Bags's speech about how Darth Vader is a pimp, and his list of real-life pimp heroes (which includes Ike Turner, Bill Clinton, and Captain Kirk). But they are too few and far between to buoy a play that doesn't seem to notice that street hookers went out with the first Giuliani administration.
Scott-Price also stacks the deck against Hustler, WI by directing it at a snail's pace that makes its 85-minute running time seem eternal. His actors follow suit, delivering their performances in a mannered style that includes a lot of lengthy pauses and makes them look painfully under-rehearsed. Joyce Liao's lighting design is also inappropriately distracting as it manages to plunge the cast into every dark spot on an otherwise fully lit stage. Perhaps this is an instance of Scott-Price being at cross purposes with Liao, since he continually places the actors in each other's light. Or, maybe he's trying to evoke some kind of overall mood.
Ultimately, Hustler, WI fails because it doesn't seem to attempt the very thing that made its 1970s cinematic inspirations so memorable: it doesn't address the root and cause of its protagonist's remoteness and discontent. In other words: it tries to walk the walk without talking the talk.