"Mope": Two Porn Actors Caught in a Bad Bromance

01/20/2017 02:52 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2017
Jody Christopherson
Jody Christopherson
Jody Christopherson
Jody Christopherson
Jody Christopherson

Just what is a "Mope"? The attention-grabbing poster art for Ensemble Studio Theatre's provocative new tragicomedy features a presumably naked man, covering his junk with the word's definition for those of us not, shall we say, "in the know": "The lowest-level male performer in the adult film industry. An anonymous stunt-penis."

Yes, ladies and gentlemen: This is a play about the porn biz (or, "adult film industry" for those shy about using the P word). And that leads us to definition #2 for "Mope": "A new play by Paul Cameron Hardy. An examination of a country poisoned by toxic masculinity, hiding inside a comedy about guys who do porn." Because the X-rated movie industry is such a titillating subject, it's always been a fertile ground for further exploration on the stage and screen: one of the last pieces of forbidden fruit in the cornucopia of American pop culture. People are hungry to know more about the men and women who are willing to have sex on film. Too often, however, movies and plays about porn go one of two ways. They can become so-called "cautionary tales" or heavy-handed morality stories. On the flip-side, other depictions aim for sophomoric humor and/or lots of skin for shock value (Hey, whose complaining?). Mope is much smarter than that. The play is never moralistic in tone. It's also hilariously funny at times, but Mope never panders to the audience with cheap jokes. And lastly, before you ask: For those of you waiting for the show's promised nudity, you'll have to wait almost half an hour before we see actor/playwright J. Stephen Brantley (as porn actor Kris Victory) in all his astonishing fully naked glory. For the record, it's well worth the wait. Mope is also unique in another way. In the heterosexual porn world, the focus is always on the women: Their faces and bodies make the money for the industry, and they are paid much more than the men. This play, directed by RJ Tolan, is about two guys who do skinflicks for extra cash.

Those guys are best buds Trevor (Eric T. Miller) and Shawn (RJ Brown). The two share an apartment in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, long known for being the epicenter of X-rated movie-making. Trevor, the "mope" of the play's title, is coarse, unkempt, and at times downright repellent-- hardly anyone's idea of a sex symbol. Throughout the course of the play, Trevor is referred to as "a white trash Tasmanian devil", "like a dog you got from the pound", and worse. Despite this, he has something that makes him valuable in the "jizz biz", and he's more than happy to talk about it any chance he can (Let's just say that if his life story was musicalized, it would be Nine.). Shawn, by contrast, surpasses his roommate not only in endowment but in charm. He's seemingly much more intelligent, well-spoken, and he's got larger (Giggle if you must...) aspirations for his career in skinflicks. The two men's casual equilibrium is disrupted by the arrival of a new neighbor, a pretty and street-smart Taiwanese-American girl named Alice (Jennifer Tsay). In a superbly directed scene, Alice's first appearance gives the audience an astute view into the core difference between Trevor and Shawn. Trevor looks upon Alice as something of a commodity: just another representation of porn's popular “Asian girl” genre. Shawn soon appears and apologizes for his friend's boorish behavior. Alice's relationship with Shawn's S-L-O-W-L-Y goes from cautious fascination to friendship— and, we suspect, the beginnings of even more. However, her arrival also contributes to the unraveling of one of the other characters, resulting in a shocking double tragedy at the play's climax. But with this climax, there's no afterglow.

All three leads in Mope-- Miller as Trevor, Brown as Shawn, and Tsay as Alice-- are excellent, with fully-fleshed (ahem...) characters and adept balances of comedic and dramatic skills, including some fine wordless acting. Miller, as the central character, has the particular challenge of being a handsome actor purposefully made to appear unappealing. The secondary players, each of whom get their chance to shine in their own scenes, are equally superb-- particularly the engaging Hollye Hudson as "Piper Moore" (Get it?) and Megan Tusing as "Krystal Kross", whose savage scene serves as the lit match for the bundle of dynamite which is the aforementioned climax. The promise of "nudity and extreme adult content" may initially entice people to see Mope... but the dramatic effect of this hard-hitting, bold piece will stay with the audience long after the money shot.

Mope continues through Sunday, February 4th at Ensemble Studio Theatre, 545 West 52nd Street, NYC. Visit www.EnsembleStudioTheatre.org for more information.

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