Anyone who has visited Times Square in New York City can attest to the power of corporate America. Disney reigns at the Broadway box office as busloads of tourists crowd “The Lion King” and “Aladdin.” Giant flashing billboards advertise big brands like Sony and Calvin Klein. Retailers from The Gap to Toys R Us operate mobbed flagship stores.
Turn back the clock just a few years and Times Square was a very different place, lined with seedy movie theaters where prostitutes worked the corners as nervous tourists hurried through to the theater district.
This was the New York City playwright Ronnie Larsen discovered as a young college student in the late ‘80s. It was also the New York City he quickly grew to love and immortalized in his play, “All-Male Peep Show,” opening next weekend at Empire Stage.
“New York used to be crazy. It was very exciting. I think it’s sad all that stuff went away. It was exciting to be harassed by the hookers. (Mayor Rudy) Giuliani took a piece out of New York when he shut all that down,” Larsen recalled. “How do I say that without sounding creepy?”
Larsen is best known for his play, “Making Porn,” a satirical look at the porn industry that has been produced around the world, including South Florida. But it was a chance encounter with a woman who “performed” behind the glass in one of those Times Square peep shows that inspired this rarely produced play.
“She was so glamorous, sitting there behind the glass taking these men’s money.
It wasn’t like ‘Magic Mike,’ there was no art to it at all, but I was fascinated by the people who worked in these sex shops,” he said.
The original version featured female characters, but soon Larsen began to question whether he was reaching the right audience. He rewrote the play with a cast of male characters and had a hit, especially after he cast porn legend Jeff Stryker.
“You couldn’t get a ticket,” boasted Larsen.
Unlike “Making Porn,” “All-Male Peep Show” had a relatively large cast and cumbersome set, making it impractical to tour the play. According to Larsen, the play sat for nearly 10 years when Empire Stage producer and friend David Gordon suggested the play be revived in Fort Lauderdale.
Larsen reworked the book, cut some characters and a more manageable set was designed. The cast includes familiar South Florida actors, along with several fresh faces. A friend of Larsen, a Los Angeles-based casting director, actually cast many of the actors via Internet.
“I really like the cast. All the strippers are kind of novices, but they’re like their characters in the play,” he said, pointing out there is full frontal nudity in the show. Not all the performers are gay, either, just like many real life sex workers who are “gay for pay.”
In addition to “All-Male Peep Show,” Larsen is also bringing “The Penis Talk Show” to Empire Stage for two performances on Wednesdays, March 11 and 18. Unlike the play, this show is largely improvised and Larsen serves as the “emcee.”
Three men will be seated naked on the stage with a curtain that covers their faces and protects their anonymity. The audience is then invited to ask the men just about anything.
“They’re not actors, just regular guys,” he explained. “Nothing is scripted and I can’t believe the shit people ask. Eventually, the audience ends up divulging their secrets, too.”
In Empire Stage’s intimate space, there’s nowhere to hide, but he promises the show is always funny. Just don’t be too shy.
Ronnie Larsen’s “All-Male Peep Show” will be presented March 5 – April 12 at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Dr. in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are $30 at EmpireStage.com.