Oh, sex: Can we ever get over it? And if we do, what will there be to write about? What would the state of the world be if it weren't largely defined by overt and subliminal sexual impulses?
Ian MacAllister-McDonald's new play, The Sexual Lives of Savages, presented by Skylight Theatre Company at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, purports to take a hard look (sorry) at sexuality, and how it affects the lives of its five characters living in a small suburb.
If only its gaze were more penetrating (sorry again). Instead, MacAllister-McDonald, director Elina de Santos and her relentlessly attractive cast serve up a jealousy quintet. This is the stuff of soap opera and, as such, it has a magnetic, emotional appeal. But the emotions being appealed to are, for the most part, childish.
The important exception occurs when one very-devoted-to-each-other married couple, Clark and Emily (Clark was played by understudy Michael Antosy in the performance reviewed; Emily never appears in the play), learn that his online postings for a threesome have been reported on in the local newspaper. (Remember newspapers?)
Clark is a sports coach at a local school, so now his job is in trouble. But not really, it turns out. The private-made-public has no tangible consequences in this play, and that seems like a lost opportunity to get to the shifting demarcations of privacy rights in our culture.
I can hear the responses to this critique already: This isn't supposed to be a play about privacy, it's a play about sex. Really? Let's take a closer look at that:
The play opens with a sex scene between Clark's colleague at the school, a lanky English teacher named Hal (Luke Cook), and his gorgeous girlfriend of two years, Jean (Melissa Paladino). Hal is having difficulty getting aroused. This is odd, given how Jean is a poster child for natural, erotic attractiveness.
Turns out, Hal is harboring seething resentment against Jean because of her answer to the question of how many lovers she'd had before they met. Turns out, he's not the gal he imagined her to be.
That sexual arousal should reside so firmly entrenched in imagination is provocative, though hardly profound. The larger point is that Hal just can't get over it. This information she formerly withheld, he claims (back to the privacy issue again), to which she rightly replies that formerly it was none of his business, that it's in the past and that it's irrelevant.
History is far from irrelevant, puritanical Hal believes. It's a mark of character, he lectures, like a graduate of the Josephson Institute of Ethics. He starts to see her as a “slut,” and eventually tells her so.
Both the play and Cook's fine performance show him swirling in his own neurosis. He suffers terrible regrets over what he blurts out, for the stringent, nasty attitudes his words convey. Each time he tries to make it better, he makes it worse.
He just can't help himself, and though Jean is a nurse, she can't help him either. Perhaps it's Paladino's empathetic, intelligent performance that makes this debate feel so one-sided or, at least, renders Luke so pathetic beside her emotional breadth. Their argument is superficially intriguing but the insights all come from Jean, who is, in all aspects, flawless.
Meanwhile, Jean's lesbian colleague at the hospital, Naomi (T. Lynn Mikeska), signs right up for a threesome with Clark and Emily. That turns out to be a heartbreaker, too, given how she shunted aside her own partner for something physically and emotionally richer. The play's leitmotif of people living in an isolation ward has poignancy.
Hal, meanwhile, stumbles upon a neurotic, adult virgin named Alice (a splendidly twitchy performance by Melanie Lyons); she puts to the test his oft-proclaimed declarations that friendship should come before sex. (It's not a bad philosophy, but it comes from a guy with such twisted, imperious morals, you know he's headed for fall after fall after fall.)
Many of the characters have monologues in which they speak to the audience their deepest desires: all very titillating, Chekhovian and probably unnecessary.
I don't often put out the call for homelier actors, but if we're talking about sexuality, as this play claims to be, and the actors all look as if they've been plucked from American Apparel billboards, the play itself becomes a fantasy rather than a drama about fantasies. And these characters' sexuality is, in the larger scheme of things, rather prosaic.
Where is that edge, that behavior where we actually cringe and then say, could I do that? Those are the stories that actually tell us who we are by taking us somewhere new.
THE SEXUAL LIVES OF SAVAGES | By Ian MacAllister-McDonald | Skylight Theatre Company at Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Aug. 16 | (213) 761-7061 | skylighttheatrecompany.com