You’d think the tidal wave of news stories about aggressive and sexually abusive men would have upstaged Ruth Fowler’s discomfiting new drama, Bled for the Household Truth, in which a young gal is paid to parade around in her undies for the morbid pleasure of a deeply dysfunctional guy.
Actually, no. Reading of these repugnant incidents in a newspaper account (as we have so often in the past month) or hearing them recounted on TV is one thing; having them graphically illustrated before your eyes, even if only in simulation, is quite another. The careless, casual rape of this young woman and the peeping-tom perversities of a pathetic lone male are here crafted with such naturalistic adroitness that you will not easily forget them.
Why go see this, you might ask, instead of some gleeful holiday musical or comedy? We all know these things occur; why have it shoved in one’s face?
Well, one very good reason would be Benjamin Burdick’s excellent lead performance as Keith, a repressed and emotionally stunted stockbroker who can’t stand to be touched but craves the presence of a woman in his life, preferably stripped down and sashaying about his apartment. To this end, Keith puts out a classified ad offering free housing in his posh Manhattan digs to any woman prepared to meet these conditions. Neither sex nor intimacy is part of the deal; in fact, as successful applicant Pen (Alexandra Hellquist) eventually finds out, both are taboo.
From a working-class neighborhood in Manchester, England, Pen (short for Penelope) is a plucky, outgoing party girl whose extroversion masks a loneliness nearly as deep as that of her voyeuristic landlord. And while she isn’t the brightest bulb in the box, her instincts tell her Keith’s weirdness is the product of his pain, not his cruelty or desire for power. In her own sad world, he looks good — “a gentleman” — in comparison with her sometime boyfriend Billy (Nathaniel Meek), an abusive sod so clueless he takes her by force, then sallies out the door without giving it another thought.
Directed with a deft, discerning hand by Cameron Watson at Rogue Machine Theatre, Bled for the Household Truth engenders plenty of antsy moments for audience members spooked by Billy’s assault on Pen and/or the masturbatory inclinations of Keith. A colleague of mine writes of the “ick” factor, and there’s no denying its ubiquity throughout the play.
But Fowler’s aim, I believe, is less to shock us than to reacquaint us, lest we’ve forgotten, with the very human complexity of aberrant and/or distasteful behavior. The production succeeds enormously in that regard, anchored by Burdick’s restrained and focused portrayal of this hurting individual. Hellquist is good, too; her impetuous Pen, unabashed in her wants and needs, tears up the stage, although a few more modulating moments would enrich the performance.
Designer John Iacovelli’s living-room set is adjoined by two smaller spaces: Keith's and Pen’s bedrooms, with windows enabling the audience to peer in at the characters in their private moments. It’s a canny design that calls attention to the covert watcher in us all.
GO! Rogue Machine at the MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Los Angeles; through Dec. 18; roguemachinetheatre.com.