Genuine wit is so rare that it’s well worth the cost of a ticket to see filmmaker and author John Waters in a revamped version of his one-man show, This Filthy World. Perhaps best known for directing such cult classics as Pink Flamingos and breakout mainstream hit Hairspray, the 67-year-old former underground provocateur has been embraced by mainstream arts institutions and late-night television shows. Indeed, as anyone who’s seen him on television or read his books knows, he is at heart an amusing, quick-witted conversationalist and writer more akin to such legendary British wits as Stephen Fry and the swishier Quentin Crisp than anyone on this side of the pond since Gore Vidal.
So while his original appeal stemmed from shock value and bizarre low comedy, underlying it all is a fine mind that crafts witticisms and anecdotes that unfurl seamlessly on stage. But Waters is not a gut-busting standup or storyteller, although he still won regular laughs from a packed house at the refurbished, re-opened Howard Theatre in Washington, DC.
Some fans missed the first part of his 90-minute show because Waters was inadvertently rushed onstage a half hour before his 8 p.m. start time. Yet he remained unmistakable: sporting a checkerboard suit, bow tie and his trademark pencil-thin mustache, commenting in his sardonic, understated way about a subculture of gay men who display explicit online photos of the results of anal fisting. “It’s called blossoming,” he said dryly. “You can Google it,” but he doubted we’d want to.
It was a reminder that no matter how many elevated circles Waters travels in—including serving on the Cannes Film Festival jury—he remains familiar with the oddities and dark corners of “this filthy world” in a way few other artists know. With 95 percent brand-new material, though, his delivery occasionally seemed rushed. Yet he didn’t lean on bad taste in behind-the-scenes tales of his film career or acerbic commentaries on political correctness and social trends. At one point, in talking about his film Cry Baby, Waters lamented the disappearance of true rebel role models: “What are you today, a hacktivist? You’re sitting home in your parent’s house, they’re leaving food outside the door, and you’re shutting down the governments of three countries. The problem is that there’s no style about it…except poor posture.”
That’s a bon mot worthy of Oscar Wilde. But only Wilde’s unlikely heir would dare to describe a hairy gay man—”I thought his back was a hedge,” Waters quipped—in Provincetown for “Bear Week” pushing along a “completely retarded” ( he apologized before using the term) 12-year-old girl in a baby carriage. “Was she having fun at Bear Week? Diane Arbus would have run from this photo,” he observed. “Then I had this terrible thought in my mind: Was she his ‘dick magnet’ for the weekend? I can’t stop thinking about it—and I hope you can’t either.” No matter how respected these days, Waters still proudly wears his crown as the “Pope of Trash.”