I’m one of those critics who, as a gesture to art, cuts lots of slack to plays that absolutely must employ nudity and sexual chaos to explore the lives of tormented photographers. Shem Bitterman’s new drama, Sensitive Skin, is a kind of R-rated fable dissecting the psychology of a young woman torn between two men and her camera. It sports an attractive cast and some skin, but for all that, it keeps its meaning concealed.
The woman in question is Eden (Kate Ascott-Evans), whom the playwright, in a game of theatrical three-card monte, first introduces as an apparent sidekick to her vivacious model, Julia (Marguerite Moreau). Bitterman opens his story not on the photographer, but on Julia and a smart-aleck Johns Hopkins intern named Nick (Warren Kole). The pair chat each other up at a New York photo-gallery party. Nick doesn’t realize Julia is the framed nude he’s been ogling, much less that the work he’s snidely dismissed was shot by her friend. Nick and Julia’s teasing sexual banter suggests that Nick may be in line for a private showing of the exhibition’s source material. And, soon enough, he and Julia are joined at a bar by Eden, and by Nick’s brother, Todd (Paul Wesley): From there, it’s a straight line for all to Julia’s apartment.
The play’s leading themes are quickly established: Julia can’t hold her liquor; Nick and Todd’s sibling rivalry puts Cain and Abel to shame; Eden will be hell. The photographer first takes up with Todd, then Nick, and then can’t make up her mind about anything other than the need to take pictures. However edgy Bitterman tries to make Eden seem, though, she is no Nan Goldin shooting friends in various states of psychological dishevelment, but an old-school perfectionist working in black-and-white prints. In a touch worthy of Douglas Sirk, Eden’s preference for the toxic clutter of darkrooms over the clean world of digital photography will have serious consequences for the story.
Over the course of double dates and late-night confrontations, we become spectators at a demolition derby of wills as the brothers fight over the ultimate no man’s land, Eden. Eventually, as much as their lifelong skirmishing, their erotic attachment to her comes to define their relationship as brothers. Although both appear to be superintelligent babe magnets, the brothers’ clothes mark their personalities. Nick, in Izod shirts, emerges as the polished achiever and controller, while blue-jeaned Todd is “the fuckup” — a charming boho prince bouncing around Europe from one carpentry job to the next. It’s also clear that Nick is the bad guy — the one who can’t stand to see anyone happy for more than two minutes.
We like plays that open in art galleries, or at least throw a scene or two inside a museum. Such settings, whether in Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things, Tina Howe’s Museum or Patrick Marber’s Closer, reflect the average theatergoer’s intellectual habitat. They also make us feel smart and, specifically, in on some joke about cultural vanity. (Whenever a character stares quizzically at some unseen canvas, we know the feeling.) The problem is that, while Bitterman’s opening may have agreeably thrown us off balance into thinking the play is going to be about Nick and Julia, the rest of the evening is simply unfocused. For a time it looks as though the story is about the brothers’ frat-boy boasts and challenges to each other, but soon it’s apparent this will be no True West. We begin to wonder if the play might have something to do with Julia and Eden’s laissez-faire lesbian relationship, but then Julia vanishes for so long that when she returns, we flip through our programs to remember who she is.
Once Bitterman unambiguously trains the narrative spotlight on Eden, however, Ascott-Evans firmly establishes her authority over her role and dominates the play. In a gargly, quavering girl’s voice, the actress embodies a woman permanently on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Fittingly, her portrayal, like Eden herself, treads a thinning red line between the ridiculous and the sublime. One eye roll too many, one extra flutter of the hand, and Ascott-Evans could turn into a piñata for theater critics, but against all odds, she makes her character’s over-the-top weirdness work. Eden is the one character who undergoes a subtle yet convincing metamorphosis, and Ascott-Evans’ nude appearance onstage and in a slide show of full-frontal images makes her performance especially gutsy.
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Director David Fofi produces some nice flourishes on designer Joel Daavid’s simple set, which mostly consists of a bed and Mondrian-gridded panels that bear Eden’s photographs, taken, actually, by Bitterman and Chris Redman. While this kind of simple setup has served previous Elephant productions well, it seems a little too rehearsal-room stark here, especially under Kimberly Negrete’s rather bright lighting plot. Then again, most of Eden’s photos, especially her nude self-portraits, are so woodenly composed that they provide neither a viewfinder into her soul nor eye candy for the audience.
Perhaps the play’s best line is Eden’s: After Nick discovers a negative of her giving Todd a blowjob, she remarks, “It’s not what you think.” Maybe this kind of image would be a little too much for Theater Row, but the scene’s frisky amorality is what the play and this production need more of. As it turns out, Eden will use this and other hardcore imagery for her next show. The play, however, isn’t about the line between art and pornography, or artist and voyeur, but the life of pain and sorrow that lies beneath a person’s skin.
If Ascott-Evans’ girl-turned-inside-out portrayal is perfect for this play, the actors who play the brothers don’t match her manic panic. Although all the cast members may be roughly the same age, the two men seem years younger in stage presences. Kole’s Nick lacks the vocal heft to balance his boyish looks with menace, so that he merely comes off as callous. Wesley’s Todd, on the other hand, only briefly becomes believable when the character is smoking crystal meth, a technique not covered by Stanislavsky. In the somewhat thankless role of Julia, Moreau turns in a game performance as the art-student-turned-stripper who spends her downtime eating sherbet and watching TV. In the end, it may be that Ascott-Evans is really wrong for the part Bitterman has written and that she is acting in a completely different play — but whatever that may be, it’s a play we want to see.
SENSITIVE SKIN | By SHEM BITTERMAN | At Elephant Theater, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through June 24 | (323) 960-4410