There's an imposing bed at the center of the stage. Colin (Troy Blendell) has such a typically English, genial disposition, you have to wonder why he's booked a hotel room (somewhere in Britain) for Christmas to be spent in the company of a hooker, what the escort agency calls "the Christmas Package."
There's a divide between what Colin thinks he's doing and what's actually unfolding, and that divide is the most provocative idea posed by writer-director Guy Picot in his dark comedy The Christmas Present, being performed at Sacred Fools Theatre through Christmas Eve.
Colin addresses the audience with droll jocularity, which carries over into his awkward interactions with Salome (Sasha Higgins), the sweet brunette bombshell who arrives in fashionable leather before reappearing in a sexy Santa outfit.
That he's assigned for himself the false name of John reveals Colin's singular lack of imagination, which offers a glimpse into why the poor guy can't, or doesn't want to, find a friend or some family to hang out with over the holidays.
Another clue is his slightly neurotic reaction to Salome's mention of a snowy Christmas, something he insists she shouldn't mention for fear that her fantasy White Christmas image may not manifest itself, thereby forcing meager reality into his insulated, paid-for world of perfect fantasy.
The final clue is the occasional wisp of hangdog desperation lodged somewhere within the twinkle of his eyes when he keeps telling her how perfect she is.
"Well, it's very sweet of you to keep saying that, but you don't really know me," she coos. "The sort of good time that you seem to want is about, I don't know, affection, comfort, companionship."
"Exactly," he fires back.
"But we can't really be that, can we," she reasons. "We haven't earned that from each other."
After asking her if she can take it on "trust," she expresses surprise that he should want human comfort. "Usually I just do sex and go."
That's a little hard to believe — that men residing in the outer margins of loneliness who hire upscale hookers aren't trying to purchase a substitute for a profound spiritual lack as well as a physical one.
Yet Salome doesn't have to be believed because she's a figment of Colin's imagination, a fantasy of the perfect woman who, after dispatching the matter of payment with assurances that she'll not break their contract by leaving early (though he may if he's dissatisfied), slithers like a feline across his bed, stoking his ego with gentle compassion while engaging in a quality of conversation that's assuredly intelligent without being pedantic.
She's too good to be true because she isn't true. She's an object of his psychic desire.
Her scenes are interspersed with the arrival of a second Salome (Mandi Moss), the real woman with whom Colin is actually reckoning — straight-talking, passion-killing, with a cavalier disregard for the impotence she provokes in him. Worse, she's a single mother — news that has the effect of ice chucked onto his shriveling libido.
And so, the play traverses the line of pretending, strung between silky romanticism and gravel-lined reality. Colin floats in the former as though on the wings of an angel; when he tumbles into the latter, he lashes out with sarcastic barbs, and in return the second Salome scratches and cuts him back through her matter-of-fact, sensible repartee. He's vindictive, she's not.
Both women play at being his friend, but which is truer?
Through Colin's ability to bridge the chasm between a generic fantasy and human contact, Picot gets to the heart of the divide between men and women. There's little here that's earth-shattering, and no point of connection between Colin's model of female perfection and the outside world of commerce and porno.
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The play also traffics in cliches, in its fantasies for arousal, from calendar pinups to porno archetypes.
But eventually it becomes clear that Picot's point is that those fantasies lead to disconnection and loneliness not only for guys but for women, too. For this reason, The Christmas Present is a better play than it appears at first glance.
As the sultry Salome, Higgins glides through the role with a steamy, soothing calm, while as her counterpart, Moss has an inexorably gritty and humane charm. Blendell's Colin portrays the john's bewilderment with plausibly brittle and defensive darts, as he aims to fathom the causes of his loneliness. The inner causes are all too obvious, but their relevance to the world beyond his hotel is what gives this play its value.
THE CHRISTMAS PRESENT | By GUY PICOT | Presented by Sacred Fools Theatre Company, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Silver Lake | Tues.-Wed., 8 p.m. (thru Dec. 21); Thurs.-Sat., Dec 22-24, 8 p.m. | (310) 281-8337 | sacredfools.org