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Vegas Ups the Ante

A stupendously fat woman in a flame-red wig and a skintight fishnet bodysuit that emphasizes every lump and pucker approaches me holding out a large, ripe strawberry. I'm sitting; she's standing. Her bosomblocks out the lights. An instant later she's straddling my lap and pressing the wet berry to my lips. To make her leave, I open wide and bite, but the creature isn't finished with me yet. She kisses me on the forehead and on one cheek, leaving behind smears of waxy lipstick. The audience members beside me laugh and snort, except for one straitlaced older fellow, who cringes. The she-monster bats her false eyelashes at him and holds out another berry. He knows he's next.

This is all warm-up: the real show hasn't started yet. Its clever-stupid title is Zumanity, a production of the renowned Cirque du Soleil, whose sold-out Las Vegas spectacles are famous for combining world-class acrobatics with slick, high-tech theatrical effects. The shows are designed to astonish the whole family and send them back to Tulsa with vivid memories of something other than the Friday night when Dad lost his bonus at the dollar slots. Zumanity is different, though. The show at the New York-New York Hotel & Casino—described in its high-flown promotional literature as "an exploration of love, sensuality, and eroticism in all its forms and from all perspectives"—is for adults only. No children allowed.

The fat woman leaves, accompanied by her male counterpart—a shirtless pretty boy with feathered blond hair who's been thrusting his pelvis into ladies' faces—and the main event begins. The MC is a husky transvestite in a black corset who cackles and leers in the manner of Joel Grey's character in the movie version of Cabaret. As percussive, synthesized music pounds the air, the circus performers, some of them quite naked, attempt to beguile us with erotic set pieces that would be fun to portray to a psychiatrist as one's own dreams, to see what he prescribes. A beautiful woman is hoisted toward the ceiling while holding in her teeth a strip of cloth from the end of which dangles a spinning male dwarf. A lean contortionist in a business suit strips off his clothes and proceeds to pretzel himself into a series of startling, boneless poses. Two sleek female swimmers dive backward into a tank and slither around like copulating mermaids. The show concludes with the entire cast simulating a smorgasbord of sex acts on a slowly revolving stage-within-a stage. Caligula would be pleased, but certain audience members have already walked out in a huff. They expected something more wholesome, perhaps.

But they shouldn't have. The show represents the brazen new Las Vegas, whose slogan, repeated in nonstop TV commercials, is "What Happens Here, Stays Here." No more kid stuff. The desert resort that reinvents itself as regularly as Whitney Houston reconciles with her abusive husband has decided to play down its family-friendly roller coasters, video arcades, and juggling acts—the relics of a failed push toward tame good fun that was meant to help the Strip compete with Disney World—in favor of the lustier amusements that built the city in the first place. Having finally awakened to the fact that no one wants to throw a wild bachelor party, blow a month's pay, or vomit out the moonroof of a powder-blue stretch limousine while under the observation of giggling 10-year-olds, Las Vegas is back to doing what it does best: getting restless grown-ups into trouble and sending them home to their spouses, neighbors, and bankers babbling flimsy, incoherent cover stories.

I woke up that morning in the Bellagio hotel with only one goal for the weekend: to comport myself as though I'd never attended Sunday school, participated in the Boy Scouts, or had parents. I want to leave here with something to be ashamed of that's not actually shameful, because it happened in Las Vegas. The idea is not to sin, but to come close, in the same way that the Venetian and the Luxor, two of the gaudier hotel-casinos, approximate Venice and ancient Egypt without really looking like them at all. I want to indulge myself in corny, play sin.

The first thing I'm ashamed of is my suite. It's far too large for one guest and has four televisions: big ones in the sitting room and bedroom and smaller ones in two of the three bathrooms. With so many places to bathe and freshen up, and so many programs to watch while doing so, I'm momentarily paralyzed. I turn on the Bose Wave radio for relief and order a room-service breakfast of fruit and oatmeal. The silverware is heavy and worth stealing, as befits what may be the city's grandest hotel, where hedonistic overkill is standard operating procedure. What the Brooklyn Bridge is to steel cable, the Bellagio is to polished marble. Almost every smooth surface in the place will yield up your reflection if you stare hard enough. And yet the effect isn't one of vulgar excess, Las Vegas's longtime specialty, but of something much rarer and harder to pull off: good taste on a truly colossal scale.

Out the window lies Las Vegas in the daylight, a hungover showgirl without her makeup and with an unexplained bruise on her left cheek. After steaming my pores in the walk-in sauna-shower and overdoing it with the free shampoo in order to make the maids bring more, I go down to the pool for an illicit tan. The sun itself is sinful in Las Vegas, demonically direct and damaging.

The people in the water and on the lounge chairs look like the stars of a vast real-life commercial for America's most aggressive cosmetic surgeons. Middle-aged hairweaves with liposuctioned abs finger Viagra tablets in their swim trunks' pockets while hitting on twentyish nose jobs with store-bought breasts and teeth so white they could be worn on a necklace. At least two of the guys are the actor James Caan, I'd swear, and the girls all look as if they were lied to as high school juniors about their incredible modeling potential. At three o'clock, as the skin on my bare chest starts to brown and bubble like well-done pizza crust, I rise from my chair regretting that I've never had work done or sat around naked with anyone who has.

It's always wisest, in my experience, despite the advice of the mental health professionals, to gamble while depressed. That way I'm already unhappy if I lose and I'm doubly delighted if I win. I choose the blackjack tables at Caesars Palace because the cocktail waitresses there wear the tiniest, tightest high-heeled shoes. (Foot discomfort in women stirs my blood.) An hour later, $200 poorer—thanks, it seems, to the good luck of other players—I try on a succession of gold Swiss watches in the hotel's Forum Shops. Putting wear on fine timepieces I can't afford and wasting the energy of busy salesmen accustomed to dealing with Hong Kong real estate magnates accords with my resolution to be naughty.

Night falls slowly, as it always does when a lonely man needs it to fall quickly. By six I'm mad with lust, but also hungry. I dine at Aqua, the Bellagio's swankest restaurant, and order for my main course what the blond waiter describes as the house specialty: foie gras. For me, foie gras is one of those French adventure foods like sweetbreads, escargots, and frog's legs that I allow myself to eat only when I'm disoriented by air travel and confident that the chef knows better than I do. At Aqua I get the feeling that everyone knows better than I do, including the decorators. The tall windows, fresh flowers, and light colors provide a respite from the city's bombastic interiors.


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