Music to woo dolls by

At the start of last Thursday’s Synthetic Pleasure Show, the 28-seat Thistle Dew Dessert Theatre was lit only by a movie screen. The limbs of a blow-up doll slowly unfurled on the screen as they filled with air. The audience sat quietly, with delicate cups of steaming tea balanced on their knees. When the footage turned to images of singer-songwriter Bob Barango writhing on top of the fully inflated doll, the audience tittered, clattering the teacups on their saucers.

Then the stage lights came on, revealing the same doll stiffly seated at center stage on a ratty loveseat. In deference to modesty, she wore shorts and a Cramps T-shirt. The B Sexuals’ Mike Conroy sat at a drum set in the corner of the stage, a fedora pulled over his eyes. Barango emerged, carrying a guitar and looking determined. Sitting next to the doll, he looked at her longingly before declaring, “Your world is plastic. My world is flesh. There is no reason why the two cannot mesh.”

Phil Goodwin, singer for the B Sexuals, entered with guitar in hand and addressed the doll with equal sincerity. “Love me for my length!” he implored, before sitting on the opposite side of the stage from Barango.

Thus began a cock-block rivalry unprecedented in Sacramento—at least, at a community playhouse that typically caters to retirees with light comedies and dessert. Barango and Goodwin traded songs, each trying to woo the synthetic object of their affections (who, it must be said, never glanced at either of them). Conroy’s brush-stroke percussion left plenty of room for the audience to hear Goodwin’s quirky, clipped lyrics while providing a strong backbeat. Barango’s deep-throated ballads of apocalypses, serial killers and the crushing lure of sex were fueled by his simple chordal accompaniment on the guitar and by the Bud Lights he cracked open onstage. Both acts played unamplified—perfect for the tiny theater.

Between numbers, the singers attempted to one-up each other. Barango presented the doll with a bouquet of flowers. Goodwin threw these aside and read her a poem. Barango held her hand. Goodwin pulled her behind the couch for several minutes, leaving the audience only the view of his legs intertwined with the doll’s. As the antics increased, the audience broke into laughter and applause. In between, they listened to the music—really listened.

It was this attention that Goodwin sought when he approached Barango about creating a theatrical setting for their music. Recently, the B Sexuals played a well-attended show at the Fox & Goose. The place was packed, and the beer was flowing, but Goodwin felt something was missing. The audience wasn’t paying attention to the songs. Thus, the Synthetic Pleasure Show was born. It found a two-night run at the Thistle Dew, where the pricey $10 cover was offset by free beverages and dessert.

Barango and Goodwin will continue their pursuit of unorthodox musical settings, if not the doll. After nearly two hours of musical competition, she left with Conroy. Some guys have all the luck.