Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Happy Endings

First, and most importantly: yes, there is a happy ending. It's probably not the one you'd expect from a one-act play festival that commissioned nine playwrights to share their take on the sex worker industry, but it's a pretty satisfying evening all the same. There are a few rough spots that -- pardon me -- could've used more lube, by which I mean hard (or soft -- I can't stop!) revisions, the kind that I could have used to prevent this sentence from growing . . . out of control. Luckily, the evening balances between the poetic bookends (Beauty and Yes Yes Yes), absurd slapstick (Pulling Teeth), casual comedy (Switch), and calm drama (Whenever You're Ready). Whether dealing with first-timers (Peep Show), old pros (The Guest), or the dysfunctionally kinky (The White Swallow), there's something for everyone. And given the smart directorial choices regarding ambiance and musical transitions, the whole night's quite engaging.

We open with Blair Fell's Beauty, a voyeur's (David Johnston's) monologued fantasy about the dancer (Joe Curnutte) he watches, a fantasy that, like true beauty, can only live in his mind and at a distance: "Don't risk passion by closeness," he says, and then later, "Beauty is not in actual life, but in memory. Memory you can repair." As the voyeur pours his heart out, we're left to wonder how the dancer -- swerve, swerve, head, head, jiggle, jiggle, pause -- actually sees himself: the answer comes as a rude awakening.

In David Foley's Switch, two plays collide -- a comedy about the ancient art of male prostitution, which the hysterically Italian Massimo (Phillip Taratula) takes very seriously ("I would never be no woman's plaything"), and then more awkwardly a rumination on the scientific work being done on mice to "switch" their genes from homo- to heterosexuality. Problem is, Earl (Adam Rihacek) really just wants to get laid, and so the play, while generating laughs from the former ("What is it like to have men's peepee in your bum?") goes nowhere with the latter.

Christine Whitley's Peep Show takes a quieter approach, using a lot of silence to give us the feeling of true voyeurism. Woman (Laura Desmond) pays Man (Robert Buckwalter), presumably a "talent scout" for a peep show outfit, or possibly just an honest pair of eyes, to look at her, a simple task that becomes an outpouring of need and emotion: "Admire me. Touch me. See me," she pleads, and though she's in a maid's outfit by this point, standing on a block, it's one of the most honest (and highest) points of the night.

Whenever You're Ready, by John Yearley, takes a similar approach, as Man (Carter Jackson) pays a Woman (Tracey Gilbert) for the privilege of sketching her nude. As the woman narrates, speaking interstitially to the audience as the man attempts to draw, we get the first glimpse of the bitterness some of the people in the industry have for their career: this woman is 35 years old, and only now becoming aware of her emotion, finding herself more naked in an ankle or beautiful shoulder than in the body that she has made so easily available, just to shut people up.

Finally, in the last piece of Act I, Matthew Freeman's The White Swallow, audiences get to delight in Matthew Trumbull's brilliantly over-the-top portrayal of a man, Nick, with a very curious fetish. Like another of Freeman's one-acts (Trayf, which largely used the same cast), it's a skit that has been thoroughly grounded by strong lines (that make completely fractured sense) and by his core actors: David DelGrosso, as the innocent, bewildered call-boy, is a great foil for Trumbull, and Laura Desmond, as Nick's wife, is a jagged point that manages not to puncture, but to sharpen the fine edges in this piece. Yes, it's silly: but given the production value, not at all implausible, and that's what makes its ridiculousness work.

The same can't be said of Brian Fuqua's The Guest, but this one's going for playing up familiar tropes in an endearing way, and therefore succeeds whenever it stays in check. The shock value of Link Sailor's (Alexis Suarez's) gear is as superfluous as the dildo he brings; the play works best when it's simply lovers Colin (F. Dash Vata) and Curtis (Brian Fuqua) quibbling over the small things, or drooling over the big thing. At any rate, I've never seen such a amicable three-way; I'd never considered that there could be real love -- or torte -- involved.

Speaking of fresh insight, David Johnston's closer, Yes Yes Yes, returns to the same dancer (or at least the same actor and outfit) as in the first play, only this time to find eroticism in the intellectual, as Man (Jim Ireland) accidentally piques the dancer's interest in his recondite reading: Finnegan's Wake. And why shouldn't a go-go dancer be able to soliloquize about Joyce? It's a great note to leave the theater on.

The few bad notes: Stan Richardson's AIDS Reveal (about what you'd expect from the title, and not much more elegantly done) and Boo Killebrew's Pulling Teeth, both of which seem to suffer from going off topic. In AIDS Reveal, three unrelated groups of people receive the dreaded "I've got HIV, and so might you" phone call, and then go into their heads to discuss it with the audience -- and more awkwardly, each other. Little happens in actuality, as with Pulling Teeth, which is just a bad joke stretched out too far, from the Easter Bunny (Taratula) trying to set a hooking Tooth Fairy (R. Jane Casserly) straight to Mrs. Claus's (Tracey Gilbert's) attempts to live vicariously through the sex lives of those on the "naughty" list. I longed to be surprised by something other than campy cleverness (her group CollaborationTown has that down cold), only to be left with a toothless frown.

I think the moral of Happy Endings is clear: writing about the sex industry got these playwrights trying new positions and getting creative juices flowing, and the refusal to play by the book (I'm not talking about the Kama Sutra) is what makes most of the night so surprisingly real, so honestly funny. Who needs a massage? Go straight for the Happy Endings.

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