Sexual Perversity in Chicago; The Duck Variations
By David Mamet
Now, many people who know his 1974 play Sexual Perversity in Chicago?the work that first earned him wide attention, and the second production (along with The Duck Variations) of the Atlantic Theater Co.'s all-Mamet season?might well hear such a story and say, "It figures." Since its premiere, Sexual Perversity has been the supreme campus teaser, the play every angry freshman wishes he had the talent and balls to write, reveling in its torrents of demeaning, macho crudeness and confused rage at women for capriciously hoarding their favors. There's more to the work, of course, but that's not obvious to those still fixated on the sort of adolescent wounds and fantasies that drive it. In any case, the reason the play is of more than prurient interest a quarter century into its prurient career is that it was actually written by a young man who, for all his interest in sex and a steady salary, had seen through the masturbatory desiccation and spiritual devastation of his culture's image-madness.
As he explains in "Girl Copy," Mamet never felt competent at the men's magazine and soon left, although his employers liked his work. He was ultimately bored by the packaged fantasies he was asked to peddle, his superego never allowed him to write about his real fantasies, and the result was what he calls "anomie." Summing up, he cites Kurt Vonnegut: "A young man is admiring the centerfold of some girlie mag. He shows it to an older man and says, 'Look at that woman!' 'Son, that's not a woman,' the older man says, 'that's a photograph.'"
Bernie Litko, the strutting, swaggering centerpiece of Sexual Perversity in Chicago, is essentially a clone of Vonnegut's young man. He's a product of the confusion of image and flesh, the preference for image over flesh in a culture that compulsively fetishizes ideal bodies and thus fosters self-hatred and emotional isolation on a mass scale. Acting as a sexual mentor to his friend and coworker Danny Shapiro (although he probably has no more sexual experience), Bernie helps ruin Danny's chances at a satisfying relationship with Deborah Soloman, an illustrator he meets and moves in with. Deborah is able to see through the sick, envious hostility of her former roommate, a poisonously lonely kindergarten teacher named Joan Webber. Danny, however, is too naive and credulous to recognize that Bernie's cocky stories are implausible and his vision of sexuality has nothing to do with real women ("The Way to Get Laid is to Treat Em Like Shit"). Danny is also too fearful and unimaginative to rise above the catch-phrase-analysis that passes for thinking all around him. As Deborah says, bitterly, before they split: "I'm a hindrance. You're trying to understand women and I'm confusing you with information."
Contrary to what some reviewers have said, it's surprising how gracefully this truculently youthful, one-hour work has aged. Alexander Dodge, the designer of Hilary Hinckle's production, knocked himself out hunting down typical, cheap 1970s furniture for his cluttered and distracting multilevel set (which exiles all the intimate bar scenes to the lower stratosphere and constantly burdens the actors with a pointless obstacle course), but the play itself proves curiously indifferent to such period immersion. Time-bound matters that once seemed central, such as disco-era singles bars, sexual permissiveness and paranoia over first-wave feminism, now fade to unimportance beside the play's chilling picture of permanent human disassociation. Hinckle's fine actors (three of them, at any rate) needed no more realism than Rick Gradone's dead-on period costumes to bring this picture colorfully alive.
Josh Hamilton finds extraordinary variety in the bleak shallows of Danny's stunted emotions, his comical stupidity the perfect complement to Clark Gregg's emptily confident and upbeat Bernie. Gregg also brings a subtle, winking self-consciousness to his performance, which is risky but ultimately fruitful, making the action seem rooted as much in the age of cyberporn and Internet chat rooms as in the heyday of Hefner. Kate Blumberg's Deborah is an appealing and vibrant youngster whose earnest aloofness makes it just plausible that she'd hook up with a dud like Danny. The one casting blunder is Joan, in whom Kristin Reddick finds so little color and nuance that, as an icon of femaleness, her bland, unvaryingly hostile character ends up seeming as reductive and spurious as a porn image.
Interestingly enough, the 40-minute Duck Variations (published with Sexual Perversity and often produced with it) lends an air of gravity to Sexual Perversity that it doesn't have on its own. This 1971 play is about two men in their 60s who could be Bernie and Danny decades later. Emil and George sit on a park bench and, for 14 scenes, speak about ducks, apparently as an oblique way of discussing the fears, disillusionments and regrets in their own lives.
Though they seem to be friends, they decline to call each other that, and their conversation frequently degenerates into captious nit-picking, gratuitous belligerence and abrupt denial. Each tries repeatedly to seize authority concerning discussion points that are never resolved and seem inconsequential to both. ("Did you know that many human societies are modeled on those of our animal friends?" "Pish." "I beg to differ about it." "Pish foo.") Ultimately, in the same way Bernie and Danny only seem happy when they're "acting" the parts of each other's loyal beaver-hunting buddies, George and Emil only seem happy when they lose themselves in imaginary scenarios, briefly "acting" together as ducks, hunters or (at the very end) ancient Greeks.
John Tormey and Peter Maloney are perfectly adequate as George and Emil, as far as their prodigious character-building talents can guide them. The problem is, a very little acting detail goes a long way in this most Beckettian of Mamet's early works. Tormey and Maloney often come off as doing too much. As in Beckett, these roles require as much attention to the staccato music of the author's chiseled verbal cadences and the sculptural shape of the play's static physical circumstance as to the development of coherent personalities. The embodied reality in this production is poignant and realistic?hundreds of little sighs, eye-rolls, lip-lickings, finger-raisings and so on?but it's also looser and less disciplined than the play needs to remain visually and aurally interesting.
Atlantic Theater, 336 W. 20th St., (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.), 239-6200, through Feb. 6.
Lobster Alice By Kira Obolensky
If Sexual Perversity could be called the apotheosis of freshman sensibility, then Kira Obolensky's Lobster Alice is surely the nadir of the sophomoric. How this dreadfully tedious, fatuously posturing work earned the respect of clever John Guare (as reported in the December issue of American Theatre) and then received an elaborate production at Playwrights Horizons is truly beyond comprehension.
A "fictional speculation" on the six weeks Salvador Dali spent at the Disney Studios in Hollywood in 1946 (when he was commissioned to create an animated short based on a popular song), Lobster Alice is an utterly inert, effect-driven tour through an ostensibly strange and whimsical landscape that is in fact as banal and familiar as William Inge's Bus Stop. Dali arrives, throws the lives of the Disney animator John Finch (currently working on Alice in Wonderland) and his assistant (coincidentally named Alice) into disarray with baffling behavior and enigmatic, pseudo-profound statements ("to the surrealist, the world is a door, and one only needs a dream to achieve the reckless feeling of pleasure"). Then Dali departs, leaving behind only "14 brilliant seconds" of animation, and the others get to act as if they're irrevocably altered when, actually, they're exactly the same.
Both Finch and Dali, on whom the exceptional talents of David Patrick Kelly are wasted, are wholly cliches: the stiff-necked, well-meaning company man versus the scoffing and beguiling hoaxster-artiste, prude American versus European sexpot. The plot has zero propulsion, its only questions being what this foulmouthed poser will do with his time and which man (Dali or Finch) will satisfy Alice's restless sensuality. Jessica Hecht is appealing as Alice, but it doesn't matter much because the threadbare action, peripheral to her character, is patched together with halfhearted tricks like the would-be disturbing introduction of incongruous objects, slips of the tongue that sound planned, trite references to Alice in Wonderland and technically show-offy changes in the landscape outside the studio window. Most of this is accompanied by schematic and flatfooted explanations a la "Art History 101," then redundantly illustrated, leaving an overall impression of shameless and ineffectual pandering to everyone who (like Obolensky, it seems) discovered modernism only yesterday.
Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.), 279-4200, through Jan. 23.
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