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Performances keep ‘Spank!’ from being unwatchable

Seldom has a simple request for theatergoers to turn their phones to vibrate elicited such a rapturous response as in the expectant moments before “Spank! The Fifty Shades Parody” opened its two-day run Monday night in the University at Buffalo’s Center for the Arts.

The crowd at Monday’s performance was primed to laugh at the mere hint of sexual innuendo. And if sexual innuendo alone was all the audience was after, the committee-written “Spank!” delivered just the treatment it deserved.

A show of hands before the lights went up revealed that only a handful of women in the mostly female audience had not read at least the first installment of E.L. James’ infamous “50 Shades of Grey” series.

That book, a thoroughly awful piece of sadomasochistic soccer-mom porn that has given feminist theorists fodder for the next decade or so of graduate theses, surely ranks as one of the most lampoonable pieces of literature of the past decade. It is also – whatever fascinating things this says about American culture – one of the most popular, having sold some 60 million copies and counting.

Targets for satire don’t come in more perfect boxes than James’ work, which might be half its original length if it did not contain the words “carnal” and “longing.”

It was only a matter of time before some savvy theatrical producer hitched his or her star to James’ prepackaged laugh-wagon, and that’s exactly what’s happened. There are at least three parodies now on the national touring circuit, and their work couldn’t be easier.

As for “Spank!,” any show that begins with an oversexed middle-aged housewife belting out a ballad of “carnal longing” set to Kander and Ebb’s “Mein Herr” from “Cabaret” cannot possibly be all bad. This is the self-described “wife, mother and kickass senior account manager” Janet, a fictionalized version of James played by comically gifted Suzanne Sole. (Sole is wonderful throughout, even though she is doing a straight-up impression of Wendi McLendon-Covey’s character in “Bridesmaids.”)

Fueled by gallons of chardonnay and decades of pent-up sexual repression, she writes her characters into existence before our very eyes. Poof: Meet Tasha Woode (Michelle Vezilj), our self-consciously one-dimensional protagonist who breaks the fourth wall to beg her author for more backstory. Poof: Meet Hugh Hanson (Drew Moerlein), a 27-year-old billionaire with a penchant for whips, chains and dramatic reveals.

The talents of this trio speak to how hard it is to get creatively satisfying work in the national theater market. Their effort – you almost have to call it good sportsmanship – is one of the reasons this show stops short of unwatchable.

Some of the dialogue is wonderfully strange and on-point, especially when it comments on James’ non-existent character development or her phrases that seem to congratulate themselves for their own brilliance. At one point, Hugh describes his young love object as “a woman with every characteristic imaginable, and yet, none at all.” Later, Tasha is described as “tracing the edges” of Hugh’s “German-engineered mouth.”

There are also some funny topical references to wood-paneled basements in Cheektovegas and to Gloria Steinem’s visit on Wednesday, letting us know that this show at least strives to strike more pertinent chords than it actually does.

But alas, most of the evening consists of cheesy musical numbers that fall flat, interspersed with campy stripteases, simulated fellatio, stage-humping, air-humping, imaginary butt-slapping, hip-swiveling, heavy petting and acrobatic intimations of intercourse.

If you’re out for a few quick laughs, “Spank!” will do just fine. But James’ book deserves a satire that’s just as funny as her work was horrible. Theater Review

“Spank! The Fifty Shades Parody”

Two stars (Out of four) Comedy presented through Tuesday in the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts, Amherst. 645-2787 or