Instead of shelves of toys, she had racks of G-strings to wade through. In place of cartoons, she stumbled upon no-holds-barred erotica, and no one in her father's revolving coterie of exhibitionists, drug addicts, and "horn dick daddies" bothered to turn it off.
"She doesn't know what she's watching," they said.
But for Liberty Bradford Mitchell, whose autobiographical solo show The Pornographer's Daughter just opened at Z Below, childhood wasn't extraordinary merely because she grew up backstage at Nob Hill's notorious Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre, which, in addition to serving as a major porno theater and strip club, produced one of the first legit feature-length porn films, Behind the Green Door. Then, one Mitchell brother murdered the other (who was the actress's father, Artie Mitchell), and then, Mitchell, at the ripe old age of 20, was called upon as a witness, and her testimony, against her intent, helped lighten her uncle's sentence to six years, of which he served just three.
If this tale seems ripe for the milking, it's telling that Mitchell keeps it at a mere 80 minutes. She sweeps through decades, boiling each revelation down to a compact zinger. Many succeed; her mother's blue-blooded East Coast clan, leery of tainting the family's Mayflower stock with California hippies, is "an envoy of Puritan emissaries." But other times, she resorts to truism, like that her family "definitely puts the 'fun' in 'dysfunction.'"
Whether delivering cliché or punch line or tightly packaged emotional moment, Mitchell is detached, quasi-ironic even, which makes her storytelling feel reluctant and prevents full identification with her characters. It doesn't help that her text isn't very theatrical; she often narrates in third person and in the past instead of living a moment in the present, as if she's reading from her dishy memoir, or worse, its press release.
While many of the clips and photos she projects provide too-good-not-to-be-true documentation of her story (including a priceless shot of her cutting loose onstage with a drag queen at one of the first AVN Awards), others look like cheesy clip art, and the live cover band she uses, the Fluffers, is poorly integrated into the show, supplying little more than sound effects and filler music that might as well have been prerecorded.
But even these significant framing problems can't much dent the piece's entertainment value; Mitchell's story is just too good. And through all the one-liners, a deeper story does begin to emerge: that of a young woman shaking off the yoke of two male relatives, one misguided, the other genuinely dangerous, and coming into her own.
One wonders how good her story could be if she gave it the time, and depth, it deserved.
Gomez structures the show as a series of snapshots that "Polaroid Phillie" took as de facto documentarian (and thus, she says, social worker) of a particular corner of the lesbian scene in Greenwich Village in the '70s. The images, which Gomez fishes out from acid-free boxes that pile the stage, center on the Bonnie & Clyde's discotheque and its pairs of lovebirds, as Phillie calls them.
Gomez, who is also a professional stand-up comedian, endows characters who could have been broad comic stereotypes with richly imagined and finely honed voices. Turkey, a butch lesbian-cum-big palooka, feels the need to introduce herself as "Turkey, like a bird," as if there were another kind. Orestes, a nightclub manager, feels he can get away with saying things like, "I have to have you as my mujer. I know your husband's right there," so long as he follows with, "I'm joking! I'm joking!"
Embodying these disparate voices with aplomb, Gomez is a consummate performer who reads her audience with whip-smart prowess. Timing the deployment of a punch line for maximum impact, she seems to be monitoring the ebb and flow of her spectators' anticipation down to the microsecond. Yet the informal ease she radiates on stage masks this refined technique. She performs as if in a bar with friends, recounting an anecdote whose skillful telling you can only fully appreciate later.
Toward the end of the show, Gomez takes an unfortunate turn into nonfiction. It turns out that she (at least as a character in the play) went on a date with one of the show's main characters, Barbara, a gung-ho women's studies major who changes her name to Dahlia and then back again. The twist reveals the proceedings heretofore as mere angsty, sentimental ruminations of an unrequited lover — a cheap raison d'etre for a play that makes such a compelling case for snapshot as drama.