Ronnie Larsen is expansive in every sense of the word: chatty, generous, lustrously fat. As he shambles down the aisle of the Actors’ Playhouse, an overstuffed grocery bag swinging from each hand, all three of these qualities are in evidence. “I … have … cookies!” he shouts. An actor approaches him, burbling concerns about her blocking. “Have a cookie,” he tells her. His producer has a logistical problem to discuss. “Have a cookie,” Larsen repeats. A visitor walks through the door. “Are you the guy from L.A.?” the producer asks. Larsen: “Cookie?” He has bought eight large boxes of them – for a company of twelve.
It’s practically impossible not to see this young playwright and director in terms of his oral fixations and outsize appetites. When Larsen speaks, he filters almost nothing – confessions follow endearing indiscretions following more confessions – and his sentences come out in a high-speed whir, like a printer on its fastest setting. And when he writes, he tends to focus on one thing: sex.
“At this point, it really has gotten out of control,” Larsen confesses. “This obsession with sex has taken over my life.”
Perhaps, but it has also made the affable, 29-year-old Larsen – a lapsed Mormon and three-time college dropout – an infamous and rather wealthy young man. In this era of Giuliani and Disney neo-Puritanism, he has successfully transformed the 170-seat Actors’ Playhouse into a home for his plays about the sex industry, all of which contain enough bare buns to stock a bakery. 10 Naked Men, a parable about male prostitution in Hollywood, closed last month after netting $100,000. Before that, Making Porn, a comedy-cum-exposé about the making of gay skin flicks, raked in more than $2 million (and still counting: Productions will soon open in London, Sydney, and Berlin). Porn was an instant cult sensation, a literal money shot; it stayed at the Playhouse for more than a year, spawned clones around the country, and at times was running in three cities simultaneously. For a while, a rotating crew of real porn stars even studded the ensemble. Devotees would come running back to the theater for every cast change, just to see their favorite new pork chop in the lead.
“Putting naked men in a play, whatever the play’s relative merits, is guaranteed a certain kind of success at the box office,” muses Tony Kushner, author of the Pulitzer-winning Angels in America – which did not feature naked men, and did not turn a profit on Broadway. “His shows are the Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding of the gay world,” agrees Elise Harris, an editor at Out magazine. “Actually, they’re the chitlin circuit of the gay world – low-rent, identity-based. At a time when hip gay playwrights are running as fast as they can from gay content, he’s doing gay underwear theater. I think that’s great.”
Larsen’s latest production, however, doesn’t have the same ready-made gay male constituency. Peep Show, which opened last week, is set in a gritty Eighth Avenue girlie palace and follows the lives of four female booth dancers, their johns, and their johns’ wives. In light of recent anti-porn zoning developments, one would think there’d be an equally large (if not larger) heterosexual market for a play with girls, girls, girls. “But it’s been hard to sell,” admits producer Caryn Horwitz, an ex-criminologist from Fresno. “Gay people have no problem going to see shows about sex. It’s not the same thing with straight people.”
If Peep Show fails, though, heterosexual prudishness won’t be the only reason. Making Porn and 10 Naked Men worked because porn daddies and hustlers are familiar, intriguing, and beefy targets for parody; both shows had the wit and rat-a-tat pacing of well-made sitcoms. But female sex workers can hardly be held up as figures of fun when the stench of exploitation hangs so noxiously over their world. And Peep Show, as it turns out, isn’t typical Larsen: It’s not chock-full of barbed, culture-specific in-jokes. It’s surprisingly bland when it isn’t discomfiting, and that’s a tough sell – unless Larsen recruits female porn stars to give the show some more buzz and campy appeal.
Whatever he decides, Peep Show inadvertently exposes one of Larsen’s dirtiest secrets: His plays, though billed as racy and lurid, aren’t much of either. The sex is simulated and untitillating, the monty only occasionally full. The two things that Larsen does best, in fact, are the two things that blue films do worst: humor and plot. In the opening monologue of 10 Naked Men, the narrator goes so far as to confess: “Actually, the title has nothing to do with the play at all. But it got you here, didn’t it?” So there’s the rub: No matter how apt Larsen is at depicting hustlers, he’s even better at hustling an audience.
Larsen, whose personal nut comes to $10,000 per month (he has apartments in both New York and L.A., and phone bills of $1,000-plus), readily admits he isn’t out to create enduring works of art. “I don’t think Making Porn is a great play,” he says. “I don’t think it deserves a Tony or an Obie. But I think it’s entertaining.” He pauses. “Besides, I don’t want a Tony anymore. I want to buy my mother a house.” Another pause. “Though maybe I do think about commerciality too much. I’ve made so much money.” Then again: “All the great playwrights have made a bundle. Ibsen, Mamet, O’Neill, Chekhov. Even Molière. These people weren’t starving in basements.”
For a while, Larsen was.
A Bakersfield native, he started his own Shakespeare company in Fresno at age 19, and for five years he did a string of deconstructive, unusual, and unremunerative productions. Eventually, he redirected his energies into writing frothier, more salable shows, starting with Scenes From My Love Life, a romp about his experimental days as a sex-club hopper and personal-ad junkie.
Larsen assumes that all of us, given the chance, would also choose lucre over art. “Anyone could be had for a price,” he says breezily. “I’m sure if I said to George Wolfe, ‘Here’s $100,000; direct my next play,’ he’d consider it – don’t you think?” I tell him I don’t know. George Wolfe directed Angels in America and Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk. He runs the Public, one of the oldest nonprofit theaters in New York. His priorities might lie elsewhere. “You think?” he says. He cups his head in his hands, ponders for a moment, then dismisses the idea. “Well, what if I gave him $2 million? $3 million?” he says. “Don’t you think he’d do it then?”