Featuring Paul Robbins, Daveed Louza, Lara Kelly, Leslie Ferreira. Written by David Mamet. Directed by Justin Kelly. Dec 4-8. Wed-Thu 8pm, Fri 9pm, Sat 2pm & 9pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. $10-$13. Poor Alex Theatre, 296 Brunswick. 416-578-2725.

David Mamet, touted as one of the most successful playwright of the last 50 years (Pulitzer-winning Glengarry Glen Ross and zeitgeist-grabbing Oleanna) is equally impressive for his rare success in Hollywood. His 1992 screen adaptation of Glengarry, with a cast that seems frankly impossible (Kevin Spacey billed sixth? Alec Baldwin good?), is to salesmen what Goodfellas is to gangsters, a film that crystalizes our impression of a professional culture. As both screenwriter (Wag the Dog, The Untouchables) and director (State and Main, The Spanish Prisoner), Mamet has escaped Tinseltown’s customary soul-sucking treatment of playwrights, with one notable exception: About Last Night…, the 1986 film adaptation of Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago, starring Rob Lowe and Demi Moore.

“I hated it. I think the studio saw that film as an opportunity to get two beautiful young stars naked on film,” says Justin Kelly, who directs a production of Sexual Perversity at the Poor Alex. “It opens great because it keeps word-for-word the opening from the play … but from there it strayed so far away from the stage play that I wish they hadn’t said they adapted it. I wish they had just said ‘we’ve borrowed some monologues and some concepts.’ It couldn’t have been further away from the play.”

Kelly gets genuinely worked up over this. Perhaps you think he’s justified if, like him, you consider Mamet to be “a modern-day Shakespeare.” About Last Night… is memorable primarily for Lowe and Moore, still flush with the beauty of youth, naked and writhing in the bedroom, in the bathtub and in the kitchen. Where Mamet’s play features blackouts, the film substitutes long, synthesized soft-rock montages. Difficult sequences dealing with sexual abuse and family dysfunction were lopped off, a saccharine ending tacked on. At least Jim Belushi kept his clothes on.

Kelly is a first-time stage director whose background is in film, leading a cast of relative unknowns. But he promises that his Sexual Perversity, opening Dec. 4, will not go Hollywood. He’s leaving in the Mamet. “If people have seen that movie and they haven’t read the play, they’re going to be shocked at what a difference there is.”

Sexual Perversity, which debuted in 1976, deals with a one-night-stand-turned-relationship between Danny (Paul Robbins) and Deb (Lara Kelly, also the director’s wife). As the young lovers struggle to communicate the most elemental of emotions, trying to build love on a foundation of great sex, their older, embittered friends Bernie (Daveed Louza) and Joan (Leslie Ferreira) attempt to sabotage the relationship.

“The throughline is how Dan and Deb go from being pink and new and sparkling clean, through a horribly dysfunctional relationship built on sex that they try to make into something more, and they come out the other end looking like Bernie and Joan,” says Kelly.

Those familiar only with the movie (the last Toronto production of Sexual Perversity was a one-night stand by One Man Tag Productions at the Poor Alex in 1998) will be surprised by the malevolently vulgar Bernie. In About Last Night…, Belushi played him as innocuous comic relief, but in the play his Penthouse Forum-like tales of sexual conquest and corrosive relationship advice (“The main thing about broads … is … the way to get laid is to treat ’em like shit”) dominate Dan’s consciousness and ours. The stage play gives a hint of where all that bitterness is coming from.

“There are a few moments when Bernie is so brilliantly defined,” Kelly says, including a revelation about the character’s background that was completely dropped from the film. “Certainly, in the end, when you see him react to women who are fat and out-of-shape, who are unattractive, the way he speaks about them with such hatred and disdain … this is a guy who recognizes those things in women as qualities that bother him about himself.”

On the flip side of the emotional coin is Deb, the 23-year-old ingenue who gets what she thinks she’s looking for, only to wind up embittered. In one scene, Deb tells Joan about a moment from her childhood: “I said, ‘Mommy, can I have a cookie?’ and she for some reason she misunderstood me or misheard me, and thought that I said that I wanted a ‘hug,’ so she gave me a ‘hug,’ and I said ‘Thank you, Mommy. I didn’t want a cookie after all.'”

Originally published in Eye Weekly November 28, 2002.