Debbie Does New York

Debbie Does New York Mama Rose had 'em, with calculating regularity. Willy Loman had 'em, too — they went with the territory. And, of course, Harry Hope's saloon was hopelessly besotted with 'em.

Mama Rose had 'em, with calculating regularity. Willy Loman had 'em, too — they went with the territory. And, of course, Harry Hope's saloon was hopelessly besotted with 'em.

We're talking dreams, and the new dreamer in town is Debbie Benton, a high school airhead who has chased her dream right into the Jane Street Theatre.

If you knew Debbie — well, you should be ashamed of yourself (just kidding). She, of course, is the Debbie of "Debbie Does Dallas," one of the most popular pornos of all time. Filmed by Jim Clark in 1978 (back when Robin Byrd was but a sparrow, playing a Mrs. Robinson on the sidelines), "Debbie" redefined Blonde Ambition as wide-eyed spaciness, chronicling the sexcapades of a teen beauty who is tapped to become a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader but needs the bus fare. She achieves her goal, doin' what comes natur'lly, as do her pals — bosom buddies all — who generously and energetically join the fun(d)-raising. Now what, as my old Auntie Mame used to say, could be more wholesome or natural?

But that was Then, and this is Politically Correct Now. Strip "Debbie" of the stripping and the steamy follow-throughs, and whaddayagot? Someone with a dream, same as Rose and Willy and those pipe-dreamers at Harry Hope's. At least that's the reasoning of director Erica Schmidt, who somehow adapted the skin flick into a feminist-friendly laugh tract.

"I can't stress enough how different it is from the film," says Schmidt, "how very little it has to do with that. There's no nudity in our show [except for a brief mooning by one of the male cast members], no curse words. In no way are women compromised or revealed. The script was adapted in such a way that the medium of porn has been changed into something else. I call it a rodeo/porno/football/circus. We use the vocabulary of these to make it constantly surprising and challenging and changing. You just never know what will happen next." The downside of dreams is choice. "Along the way Debbie makes choices — you could call them compromises — to get what she wants. That's a universal thing. Look at Enron. Look at President Clinton. Look at any entertainer. Look at me doing this play. When you're an actress and cast in a film, you have a breast contract that says how much you'll reveal. At every turn, we are asked to make choices. How do those choices define who we are?

"The idea of doing a porn onstage is in itself funny," she feels. "If Waiting for Godot is the post-Atom Bomb answer to comedy, then what's the post-Monica Lewinsky answer when there's nothing sacred anymore and all sex is revealed? It's to do a porn onstage."

Susan L. Schwartz, an actress searching for a stage role, came up with that particular brainstorm (and, because of it, for this project she's an associate producer with The Araca Group, which is bringing it to theatrical fruition): "Wouldn't it be funny, I thought, if a porn-film script could be given a proper reading onstage by serious actors, how silly that would be?

"Then, the inherent marketer in me knew that it had to be a title that was somewhat famous to get people in the seats — so I rented what I considered the four most famous — "Deep Throat," "The Devil in Miss Jones," "Debbie Does Dallas" and "Behind the Green Door" — and I watched them."

Two films into her research, Schwartz began doubting her instinct. Then along came "Debbie," ditzy and Dallas-bound, and the vision clicked into place. She wrote down the largely ad-libbed inanities that passed for a "script" and presented the 30-page text as an eccentric hour-long show at last summer's Fringe Festival. The Araca Group, which had brought Urinetown beyond the Fringe to Broadway only the year before, happened to catch the show, saw the commercial potential in it and stepped right up to the plate again.

The show's creative team is an almost-unbroken line of women — save for Andrew Sherman, who wrote songs that are sprinkled into the play, and Tom Kitt, who musically supervises them, it's pretty much boys' night out — and the sisterhood is in perfect sync.

Everyone comes out on the same page, says Sherie Rene Scott, who does Debbie, "but their reasons for doing this show are, I'm sure, different and personal. My reasons are: I have experienced a lot of objectification in my life. I've gone from being someone who was not considered attractive when I was younger in high school, and seeing how I was [a victim of] lookism in that way, to then be treated a completely different way [because of] lookism later on in life. This show really steps out of what people think it's going to be.

"We definitely deliver in terms of humor, sexiness, shock value — but it also makes people think about how you typically judge people. In terms of what it really has to say, it's quite remarkable. That's why I'm doing it, not just for the fun of getting to shake my tits and ass — but that, too. Finally in my career, I get to use all my gifts — physical and vocal — and use them unapologetically. Now, I'm using my sexuality to make a feminist statement."

—By Monty Arnold