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Downtown’s Newest Drug

Andrew Solomon reviews the addictive serial Hot Keys.

Scene from Hot Keys.

Hot Keys is billed as a live soap opera, set largely in the sleazy underworld of the hustler-rich New Jersey shore. Each week’s episode picks up themes and plot elements from the previous week, and weaves them through a constant cast of inconsistent characters by way of schlocky melodrama. Though it has some hilarious lines and inspired performances, the work is, in many ways, terrible. The acting is uneven, the plot disjointed to the point of incoherence, and the writing often monotonous. Much of the humor is sophomoric. But Hot Keys is nonetheless addictive. Once you’ve seen a few episodes, you find yourself drifting back one busy weekend after the next.

Nothing I have encountered before begins to approach the emotional, intellectual and physical exhibitionism of this production. You pay $6 to bear witness to the fantasy life of writer/director/star Jeff Weiss. This is, at best, a matter of uneasy but passionate fascination borne of the extravagance of bare confession, in which you identify many — too many — elements of yourself. What is one to do with a scene in which Jeff’s well-preserved but unarguably middle-aged body is contorted as he wrestles ecstatically with a beautiful young hustler? And with the following week’s continuation, in which he is bitten to death by his object of desire, who is seeking vengeance on his abusive father?

The episodes in Hot Keys are as obscure in their connections as the events of a dream. Characters appear from nowhere and then disappear; flashbacks bring the dead to life again, and force them into new and unlikely juxtapositions. You are never sure who is dying and who is a killer. Everyone’s parents seem to be evil, and the quality of their evil haunts their children. The menaced are also menacing. There are few places in New York where you can see so many alluring male bodies in each other’s grip, but the sex here is always troubled or troubling, and a quality of doom seems to hang erotically over it. Hot Keys is about how strange and terrible it is to be queer, to be Jewish or black or Asian, to be too intelligent, to be getting old, to have AIDS, to be lonely. Almost all members of the audience can identify on more than one of these fronts, and so the likelihood of their recognizing their own fears and anxieties in Weiss’s fantasies is high.

Sigmund Freud wrote: “People are in general not candid over sexual matters. They do not show their sexuality freely, but to conceal it they wear a heavy overcoat woven of a tissue of lies, as though the weather were bad in the world of sexuality.” In the world of downtown, smart, aging, ill, Jewish or black or Asian queer men, the overcoat is differently cut than it was in Freud’s Vienna, but the fabric of concealment has hardly changed at all. Jeff Weiss, though, has gone out into the storm in a string bikini. In our involuntary and somewhat horrified identification with him, we too are abruptly stripped of our thermal Gaultier rainwear. Naked before ourselves, we recognize his painful truths as compelling, seductive and agonizing — and we recognize, belatedly, the distinctive quality of Weiss’s genius.

What is perhaps most brilliant about Hot Keys is that is accomplishes all this through a veil of exuberance. Every episode begins with a sing-along of the Rodgers and Hart tune “Where or When”: the summer camp experience of singing together serves to implicate the audience in what follows. The comic sequences between Vicki and Sol Scheisskopf and Link Rosato are as pointed as the pencils. Cabaret numbers, ostensibly the entertainment at the hustler bar where Hot Keys‘ characters go of an evening, frame the dramatic scenes. I love Brenda Cummings as the lesbian ukelele player (she plays a nurse during the non-cabaret scenes) more than anyone, but I am also pretty much blown away by Instant Girl, a three-woman group who do strident synchronized choreographic interpretations of dated pop songs, like a sort of cross between Lotte Lenya, the Bangles and Esther Williams. I am less taken with the guy who does the mambo with glow-in-the-dark rubber seafood (squids, lobsters, etc.), but he does, of course, add to the overall mood of anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-weirder.

The tension between the dynamic on stage and the dynamic in the audience is played out fully by the intimacy of the performance space and the informality of the presentation. Hot Keys looks like the perfect pick-up scene: almost all the audience members are trendy and attractive, smart and funny, or they wouldn’t be there. But none of this savvy crew know quite what to do with the nakedness Jeff Weiss gives them. Like any good soap opera, Hot Keys is, in the end, onanistic, more likely to substitute for the fulfillment of your fantasies than to fulfill them.