By J.D. Oxblood
“I can promise you, if LAST CALL AT THE STARLINER LOUNGE isn’t one of the most original shows that you’ve ever seen, then I will eat a pack of cigarettes.” With an offer like that, how could I refuse? Yes, that was the inimitable Snuffy Patterson, and I was half hoping the show would suck so that I could watch him suck ‘em down. No dice, but it turns out I still won: he eats a cigarette in the opening as an ad for “Turkish Cigarettes—the cure for halitosis.” The sourpuss face on this kid is priceless.
We’re back at Corio, another night of hopeless debauchery, shaking off the post-holiday season delirium tremens. It’s a Wednesday night and cold enough to freeze the rye on my breath. Seems that all the gorgeous dames in this place only work the Pontani shows; the skirt serving us hooch is looking a little long in the tooth. Maybe it’s a good thing that she’s not in a corset.
Brian Newman and his band loosen the crowd with a couple of standards, starting with “All of Me.” This kid looks about two days past getting his draft card, and so thin you could pick your teeth with him. He can warble, though, so damn well I wondered if the horn in his hand was just a prop. But he made a sucker of all of us and blew the damn thing better than Gabriel. He’s backed by keys, skins, a bull fiddle who can lay down a bass line that walks with a ten incher down the left leg, and a sharp-dressed urbanite blowing a thoughtful motif on a tenor sax.
I settle into a cold one and tried to follow the convoluted plot.
Snuffy, our narrator, picks up as Softy Malone enters—Honey Birdette in drag, black suit, vest, and tie, black fedora, brunette hair pulled back. Ladies and gents, our private dick is a chick, and Raymond Chandler is twirling his tassels in his grave. Enter the Alabaster Beauty, god’s gift to lonely dicks, Ruby Valentine as the showgirl stunner Sally O’Mally, all in blue with violet highlights in her hair. Broadway Brassy brings out the pipes and belts it as Ruby struts, loses the taffeta shawl, the royal blue bra, the corset, the fringe, and the gloves, giving us a nice tease, flashing her ass, and twirling those tassels. Skin like porcelain, face of a haunted past. Bang! She’s shot dead. Softy’s ace kid assistant—Scott Rayow in an eyepatch—hustles Softy out and takes the mike to sing the Who. Sort of. “Nobody knows what it’s like… to be the sad man… behind one eye.” “He sees a lot of movies, just not in 3D.”
Softy boozes it up when the dame enters with a case. The dame: Molly Malone, nee Molly O’Mally, dead Sally’s identical cousin (nice reference to the Patty Duke show), who got loaded in the rare book biz (nice reference to The Big Sleep). And, yes, it’s still Ruby, this time in burgundy. Cue the bartender to keep the rye coming; I’m getting confused and don’t want to mind it. Snuffy gives us the backdrop on why Softy’s such a softie… her girlfriend got whacked, poor Carmela, and Broadway Brassy gives us a torchsong in a pseudo-latina outfit, filling the hall with her glorious voice as Snuffy fills in patter in the gaps. A fantastic duet that made my mind split like the seams in Broadway’s bra wanted to.
Time for a commercial. Snuffy puts on his best Peter Lorre—lightly filtered through Ren, only less Mexican—and hawks some product. Broadway sings while Clams Casino comes in mostly naked—melons with their own gravity, Galileo—and reverse-strips into her detective outfit. Somehow watching her get dressed made me think I’d already slept with her. I gave a slight yawn, reached for a cigarette, and remembered that this was fiction. The funny pages, even. Clams the cop wants Softy off the case. Softy goes to see Sally’s corpse and has a melodramatic flashback, and then we’re back at the Starline, where Sally used to perform, only we’re with Broadway Brassy as Lieutenant Scooter Romaine, busting a fabulous Edward G. Robinson bray, catching Molly’s act.
Ruby gives us the goods, shaking in a black sparkly dress as the bandleader’s trumpet glissandos out, taking her hose off slowly enough to catch a glimpse of the birthmark on the inside of her thigh but not slowly enough to kiss it; she puts her shoes back on, loses the dress—the black heart tattoo raises questions as to just how identical these cousins really were—and gives a final reveal in red heart pasties and tiny translucent flowered panties. The things I would do to this woman ain’t fit to print.
Exposition. Molly spills the beans to Softy—her twin was really a drug smuggler for cancer victims. Scribe in the audience feels his mind tilt. Ruby throws her lines with deadpan sincerity, pure melodrama, certainly not method, and when she flubs a line Softy catches the disease. Things are getting fun and it’s not just the whiskey talking. Softy gets knocked out by—literally—a slapstick, and her partner Jones—Weirdee Girl in a blonde coifed wig—takes her clothes off as Broadway sings. End first act.
I’m wondering why the waitress chooses the intermission to vanish, and have to go to the bar for another drink. My partner in crime and I discuss Jimmy the Sidekick’s eyepatch—a little disconcerting, him doing the “One Eye” song with the patch clearly offset, his other eye showing. Accident, Scott? Or can you not walk the twenty feet from backstage to stage with one eye covered? I decide I don’t care—the more the performers slip up the more genuine the show seems. My photographer can’t decide who she has a bigger crush on—Snuffy, Brian the beanpole bandleader, or Honey Birdette. My partner and I decide that she can probably take her pick, and start arguing about Broadway Brassy’s impersonation—I think it’s Cagney, but become convinced that it’s Edward G. We drink up.
Snuffy brings it home, twisting his face like rubber and belting out “Rockabye Baby” in his best Al Jolson, as the sax player wails on the clarinet. As the bit winds up Snuffy subtly lowers the stand on the box mike, stooping into it. This kid is a natural.
Softy goes to visit Molly and we finally get a little lesbianic tease, “Do you really have to go, Softy?” as the two of them flirt and twirl and Snuffy sings Neil Diamond’s “September Morn,” a welcome anachronism. The ladies almost kiss, Ruby shows a garter, takes Softy’s jacket off. The room fills with the scent of anticipation—or possibly something worse. Ruby pulls down Softy’s zipper and Softy flashes us the most irresistible of sideways grins.
Broadway belts it in a trench coat and a pink belt, losing the coat to reveal a sparkly dress and a lacy bra, the crowd wondering why she doesn’t take it all off, her… uh, pipes straining the fabric. Jimmy gets us all confused by finding an errant slug. Molly tells Softy that someone tried to kill her, and she found a blonde wig—a prop conspicuously absent, giving added resonance to the narrator’s line, “It wasn’t adding up.” I’ll say. Softy points to the phone to cue a ring. The audience is liquored up well and good by now and eats it up with a fork. Softy’s partner—Weirdee Girl—delivers a message to Softy in her best Lauren Bacall. The plot is spinning wildly out of control, and this reviewer, the keys spinning drunkenly under his fingertips, his show notes increasingly indecipherable, decides he doesn’t want to give too much away. Ya can’t tell who done it when yer reviewing a whodunit. Like the narrator says, “One good dick can make all the difference.” This dick wants you to see the show for yourself.
Don’t miss: Ruby Valentine’s long white leather gloves, or Jimmy the Sidekick asking, “Is my bit over?” or the greatest death line of all time, “Someone feed my cats!” Clams Casino gives us a sweet striptease almost upstaged by the music, as Snuffy leads the band in the most iridescent cover of “Happiness is a Warm Gun” ever, complete with a stylistic descent into Spanish Harlem for the “Mother Superior” section, breaking into a slow swing for the chorus. A true delight.
I can’t give away the ending, but I will say that, 1) these stories never end well, and 2) if you can keep your shirt on, Softy—the delectable Honey Birdette—won’t. I think it was the ghost of Raymond Chandler that caused that wardrobe malfunction, allowing us all a glimpse of Honey’s sweet Maraschino cherries. But it was sheerly her generosity as she worked the room after curtain call, giving us full au natural flashes behind her fedora.
In short, “Last Call at the Starline Lounge” is uneven, dated, sloppy, and fucking fantastic. This ain’t broadway, baby, and where else can you see all your favorite characters and motifs from black and white movies, hear quality jazz music, and see naked girls all in the same place? Nowhere, son, not now, not ever. Yes, I’ll give it up—this is one of the most unique shows I’ve ever seen. My only regret is that now I can’t make Snuffy eat a pack of cigarettes.
Last Call at the Starliner Lounge runs wednesdays at Corio until further notice.
Tickets at: http://www.corionyc.com