'Babylon Heights' Shows That It's Hard Out Here for a Shrimp

It’s Hard Out Here for a Shrimp
Babylon Heights lifts the curtain on the low lives of little people

Forget the flying monkeys: Those damn Munchkins were the real terror lurking in the wonderful world of Oz. At least if the writers of Babylon Heights are to believed.

Four little people sharing a room in a Culver City hotel during the 1938 filming of The Wizard of Oz are anything but cute and cuddly. They’re drug addicts, alcoholics, whores, thieves and sodomites. Name the sin, and chances are it’s in this script, written by Irvine Welsh (author of Trainspotting) and Dean Cavanagh. And even though the cumulative effect of the debauchery resonates more for its depraved shock value than its literary merit, it’s still a fascinating, if long-winded, train wreck of a play.

Its engine is fueled by two urban legends surrounding the movie’s production. One is that the 124 midgets recruited by MGM for the film were miniature Marquises de Sade, engaging in drug-fueled orgies and drunken parties.

(This myth is just that. From testimonies of former Munchkins in reputable histories, it seems clear there while there may have been a handful of drunks and reprobates onhand, the vast majority of the midgets were too exhausted after the grueling filming days to even think about partying like pint-sized porn stars.)

The other involves the oft-told legend that a despondent Munchkin hanged himself on-camera during a shot of Dorothy and friends cavorting down the yellow brick road. (Again: horseshit. Though something does move in the background of the shot, all logical evidence points to it being one of the exotic birds used in that day’s filming.)

Historical accuracy aside, Welsh and Cavanagh use the two tall tales of short people as catalyst and climax for their play.

Though ample literary license was taken, there’s a sense that more could be going on in Babylon Heights than just its harrowing story of four seriously amoral actors feeding off one another’s pathologies. The problem is that the first act’s thick verbiage and the second act’s garish depravity make it impossible for the play’s concerns to elevate above the gutter.

The first undeveloped theme mimics the film itself. Like Dorothy, these four people have traveled to Oz to make their dreams come true. Except this Oz is Hollywood, and there’s no happy ending for their dreams of respect and acceptance. But the fact these four unhappy souls are far more Manson Family than Partridge Family makes problematic caring about their struggle to feel normal.

The second theme is even less efficiently pursued: that it’s a bitch being a little person and that big people love to fuck with them. Every character reiterates this sad fact of life in the real Munchkinland, but all they do is talk about their us-vs.-them reality. They’re so busy scheming and talking trash to one another that no sense of solidarity or shared fate manifests.

Not that director Matthew Anderson and his solid four-person cast don’t try to engage the audience. The production is solid, using oversized beds and props (absurdly huge wine glasses, cigarettes, watches, etc.) to give the sensation of life in the physical margins. The four-person cast also clicks, with Marcus Proctor’s exquisitely rendered portrayal of a young English little person helplessly adrift in the world particularly effective.

But Proctor’s is the only character easy to root for, a flaw in the script itself. Even with the super-sized props, this is filthy kitchen-sink realism, and the cast gets the grit and intensity just right, but it’s just too hard to really invest in what happens to a group of pathological fuck-ups, regardless of their size.

If they’d shown a bit more concern for substance over shock, Welsh and Cavanagh could have created a thematically rich play, using little people to tell a broader human story. As written, it falls a bit . . . sorry, misses the mark.

Babylon Heights at the Garage Theatre, 251 E. Seventh St., Long Beach, (562) 433-8337; www.thegaragetheatre.org. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through June 20. $15-$18.

 
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