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Anon and Mustang Sally: Beneath Therapy 

When sexual healing’s not enough

Wednesday, Oct 31 2007
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If it’s true that most art is the expression of male fantasies, then two plays running concurrently buck the grain by offering rare female perspectives on the minefield of heterosexual love. Kate Robin’s Anon, appearing at Stage 52, discovers in a single relationship the acid drip that corrodes marriages and romances across society. In Robin’s world, men like to hear about sex but not to discuss their feelings about it. Trip (Blayne Weaver) is a young suit who’s called to his New York apartment an animal behaviorist to sort out his neurotic cat. That the pet’s name is Pussy, and that Trip tries to conceal this moniker from Allison (Kit Pongetti), is an early clue that their whirlwind affair (they sleep together on her first house call) is off to a shaky start.

Sure enough, before long Trip is experiencing performance problems in bed, which the patient, caring Allison traces to his Catholic childhood. We see the origins of that upbringing on the other half of the stage, where his now-middle-aged mother, Rachelle (Alison Martin), suffers through the indignity of a marriage to a man (Larry Joshua) who loves her but also has a hard spot for prostitutes. At first, we don’t connect these two separate stories, but we do when their characters interact. We also realize how much of a mama’s boy Trip is and how quickly his mother-whore view of women is poisoning his relationship with Allison, whose only apparent vice is an insistence on steel cat-box scoopers.

Robin shows a reliable understanding of love’s nervous terrain, and her writing recalls the work of another bedroom observer, Craig Wright, the author of Orange Flower Water and Recent Tragic Events. Her play also displays a forgiving humanism while it stakes out its decidedly feminine worldview of romance. Unfortunately, it isn’t long before we realize why her play is called Anon, and the title has nothing to do with a certain archaic adverb. Anon’s narrative is punctuated by the appearance of no fewer than 10 women who speak anonymously at some 12-step program meeting for people suffering relationship fallout. Some have body-image problems; others have boyfriends, husbands or fathers who are pervs or porn fiends. Eventually, Allison shows up to share, but by then it is too late for her and Trip, and for this play.

There is nothing innately unworkable about embedding such monologues into a script, but the inclusion of so many of them, preceded by the actresses bringing out folding chairs to sit on, quickly turns Anon into a “program play.” These meetings cripple the play’s momentum and make for long scene changes. Not helping matters is Robin’s tendency to write dialogue that doesn’t portend adult themes as much as rely upon the singsong cadences of sitcom, whether it’s the Will and Grace–y repartee of Manhattanites Allison and Trip or the Archie and Edith Bunkerish angst of Rachelle and Bert out in Queens. I sometimes tried to imagine this dialogue being delivered at slower speeds, at lower volumes or with different tonalities and subversive inflections, thinking that perhaps director Chris Fields had misinterpreted Robin’s intentions.

Those intentions, however, are later reaffirmed in such silly scenes as when Rachelle, now a runaway wife, shows up at Trip’s with a suitcase packed not with her belongings, but with the ingredients and paraphernalia to make pancakes for her son. It’s not as though Anon shies away from serious issues. Robin pushes her characters to confront the most uncomfortable truths, and there’s one startling moment in this production that involves the kind of graphic nudity that makes you ask, “Did I just see that?” The problem is that seeing Robin’s characters is often more interesting than hearing them.

Mustang Sally is a horse of a different color. Where Anon plays a broad field of heterosexual hang-ups, the spotlight of Linda Felton Steinbaum’s dramedy, at Sherman Oaks’ Whitefire Theatre, is tightly focused on a single character’s transgression. Kathy (Sally Conway), a 31-year-old music teacher, has just been forced to resign her position. Almost coquettishly, she begins to explain the reason to her older sister, Elizabeth (Andrea Conte) — Kathy’s been busted for inappropriate behavior with a 13-year-old boy. Elizabeth reacts with curt frankness: “You’ve gone nuts!” Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s more pragmatic attorney friend, Edward (Michael Blain-Rozgay), sets out to build a defense strategy.

Kathy, however, is not interested in defending herself but only in pursuing her affair with Salvatore (whom we never meet), despite the school’s order that she not contact him — and even though she now finds herself pregnant. Kathy is something of an innocent herself, and her knock-kneed body language and adolescent fashion statements present a woman-child incapable of discerning right from wrong. Ever so briefly, Steinbaum’s hour-plus, two-act play seems as though it might turn into an interesting amorality tale.

Mustang Sally, however, unfolds within a disjointed, schizoid narrative. On a certain level, the play is a “procedural” in which characters map out a step-by-step plan to keep Kathy out of jail. Yet the story is continually torpedoed by a slapstick humor embodied by the sisters’ mother, Marilyn (Tish Smiley), a scolding, outlandish meddler who’s torn between her born-again Christianity and drooling over Edward. Every time the action settles into a kind of Children’s Hour scandal groove, Marilyn shows up and suddenly the mood changes to Come Blow Your Horn.

Part of the responsibility lies with director Arturo Castillo, who allows Smiley (admittedly, a co-producer) to perform in her own parallel play, but more of the problem rests with Steinbaum, who can’t make up her mind what kind of story she wants to write. She seems to take the subject matter seriously, and the production notes remind us of how society hypocritically treats woman-boy couplings not as molestations but as tabloid jokes — and the boys involved as lucky. (Only a few years ago, Mary K. Letourneau’s affair with a 12-year-old played out in the media like a lusty Benny Hill sketch.) Yet Steinbaum gives us so many zany moments, it’s hard even to track her play’s storyline, let alone discern its stance. When, for example, Marilyn wanders into Kathy’s home alone and hears Elizabeth and Edward approach from outside, she does what any adult trapped in an I Love Lucy episode would, and ducks behind the kitchen counter to hide.

The co-dependency between director and playwright is also betrayed by Castillo’s inability to solve some basic staging challenges for his undeniably spirited cast. Designer Chris Winfield’s set for Kathy’s home, which consists of pastel-hued walls and fairly complete furnishings, depicts a living room, kitchen and dining area. The Whitefire’s small stage understandably requires a radical compression of space to accommodate these locations. Nevertheless, the actors violate a kind of fifth wall whenever they speak from the kitchen directly into the living room — suggesting that the home doesn’t consist of discrete rooms, but is one module where the living-room couch literally sits a few feet from the stove. More jarring still, Steinbaum has Kathy’s offstage bedroom inexplicably swallow up her characters for long periods of time whenever they disappear into its maw. In the end, Steinbaum wants to have a play about a seldom-explored sexual deviance without having to do the research and figure out how to incorporate her findings into a believable story. Talk about inappropriate behavior.

ANON | By KATE ROBIN | Echo Theater Co. at STAGE 52, 5299 W. Washington Blvd., L.A. | Through November 11 | (800) 413-8669

MUSTANG SALLY | By LINDA FELTON STEINBAUM | At the WHITEFIRE THEATRE, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks | Through November 18 | (866) 811-4111

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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