In Dostoevsky's The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor — a novella and parable tucked inside The Brothers Karamazov, and arguably the 19th century's greatest sliver of writing — Christ returns to Earth in Seville during the Inquisition. There, he meets the Grand Inquisitor, who, besides threatening to burn Him as a heretic for disturbing their peace, dismantles Christ's philosophy on the basis of faulty assumptions: that Christ wrongly presumed that mankind was strong enough to embrace freedom with all its costs and responsibilities and therefore would aspire to the virtues of peace and benevolence.
At a music stand, actor Bruce Myers read haltingly, even lovingly, from Marie Hélène Estienne's adaptation of the novella over the weekend at Santa Monica's Broad Stage. He was directed by Peter Brook.
The evening's second half was devoted to Fragments by Samuel Beckett (arguably the 20th century's greatest poet), staged by Brook and Estienne. It consists of five sketches (Rough for Theatre I, Rockaby, Act Without Words II, Neither and Come and Go) depicted in a comic-tragic style with the features one associates with Beckett — the starkness of existence, the austere landscape, the hobo-clowns (Myers and Yoshi Oida) passing time with pointless daily rituals until darkness descends once more, and the poetry of life's extinction as a woman (Hayley Carmichael) quietly expires in a rocking chair.
The slavish devotion to Beckett's original intent kept the event very 20th-century — the consequence being that these classics start to resemble throwbacks, even though their ideas have never been more relevant. The possibility that we find ourselves in an endgame — a planet we're destroying, protective social policies we're abandoning and the transparent, unprecedented manifestations of greed — may be the only important thing left to dramatize. But if an old play keeps getting staged in the same old way, it gets boxed in, and seems to matter less than it should.
The Grand Inquisitor speaks of the need to keep the people comforted and docile with fantasies they'll willingly incorporate into their reality — fantasies of heaven, of life after death. That statement anticipates the existentialists and absurdists who would emerge a century after Dostoevsky was writing — the likes of Beckett and Ionesco and Pirandello — who would, through a mix of clown shows and dirges, illustrate how we derive meaning through contrived daily habits and inventions, which are fantasies of control amidst chaos and oblivion.
That's the big picture frame for Jane Anderson's new play at the Geffen, The Escort — a sleekly performed and perhaps too sleekly directed drama with scintillating ideas about the sex trade in our culture. The work depicts the sex trade as yet another arena in which we give up our selves in the barter for comforting fantasies of power and control, humility and humiliation — the erotic equivalent of what the Grand Inquisitor mentions in the theological realm.
The play, a world premiere, is on the road to a destination that hasn't yet been discovered. Some of this has to do with Anderson's expository writing style, and some with director Lisa Peterson's punching scene transitions that obscure some reflective essences in Anderson's writing. Some with lapses of credibility and some with the play's gratuitous reliance on sentimentality.
The story focuses on two women whose lives intersect — an obstetrician named Rhona (Polly Draper) and her patient, the high-end prostitute Charlotte (the excellent Maggie Siff). Rhona is trying to co-rear her 13-year-old son (Gabriel Sunday) with her urologist ex, Howard (James Eckhouse), and the play's crux lies in the evolving and devolving friendship between the two women, who both regard themselves as healers.
Like Anderson's The Baby Dance — which concerns the friction between an infertile, well-heeled urban couple and the dirt-poor birth mother of the child they've contracted for — The Escort wears its social satire and insights into the class divide like a glittering jewel. It's at its best in scenes such as a contracted bedroom liaison between Charlotte and Howard, in which Anderson blisteringly satirizes Howard's postcoital arrogance and condescension in what he presumes to be a genial conversation with Charlotte. He cavalierly refers to other "whores," prompting her to fire back, defensively, that she's been with men who actually run the world, and "You're nobody."
In this play's universe, he may not be able to run her world, but he can certainly ruin it, because of her somewhat inexplicable, sentimental interest in his and Rhona's son. That this presumptuous "nobody" should have such power over Charlotte's destiny is a potent view of social injustice. If only it were attached to more plausible dramaturgy.
Anderson's writing also shines through in the trivia of domestic scenes between Rhona and her son, as in her discovery of him trawling for porn on his laptop. She becomes the Grand Inquisitor herself, for a moment, until he upends her with arguments of privacy rights, combined with a slathering application of guilt. But at scene's end, he almost winks to the audience and asks how he did — a punch line that deflates the unspoken power of what just transpired.
This deficit is an extension of the opening scene's clumsy exposition, where Rhona gives a gynecological exam to her new patient, Charlotte. Naturally, Charlotte's profession comes up, and the pair engage in issue-laden banter that appears to be more for the sake of the audience than for the characters, an opportunity for the author to map out the thematic terrain.
Other details that undermine the credibility of the events are Charlotte's posting of her specific services on the Web (a flare in the night sky for law enforcement), her use of her real name as her sex-worker identity and her agreement to service an entire football team for what's obviously going to devolve into a gang rape — the incident that incites Rhona's vicious contempt for her "friend" and cements the class barrier between them.
We're all for sale, rationalizing the selling of our souls with moral justifications and self-importance. Some are just more vulgar about it than others.
Anderson sets in place a theatrical device right at the top by having Charlotte tell us why the production is employing stocking costumes (by Laura Bower), with genitalia attached, in order to avoid the distracting titillation of nudity.
There's no nudity in Bryan Rasmussen's staging of Dolores Ribakoff's Fetish, a series of comic vignettes about fetishistic sex between consenting adults, which plays Saturday nights at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks. Nor is there much of a reach for ideas about why people act out erotically the way they do. Where's Jean Genet when you need him?
Imagine an R-rated episode of 1970s TV show Love, American Style, as the style of both the titillation and the jokes pre-dates Sex and the City. But these characters are stupider — often the point — and there are some sweet nuggets.
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In a scene about two hetero couples wife-swapping, the disappointment on the face of Caroline Langford, eagerly awaiting the imagined magnitude of her appointed lover's member and then realizing its diminished reality, has the comedic punch of an old vaudeville routine.
There is some nice play about illusions and delusions, expectations and disappointments. It's bravely acted and danced (choreography by Tania Pearson-Loeser), but it's domestic stuff. Let's just say its minuscule ambitions are fully realized — as seen on TV.
THE ESCORT | By Jane Anderson | Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd. | Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 & 7 p.m., through May 8 | (310) 208-5454 | geffenplayhouse.com
FETISH | By Dolores Ribakoff | Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks | Sat., 8 p.m., through April 30 | (818) 990-2324