Photo by Craig Schwartz
Jessica Goldberg’s new play, Sex Parasite, concludes with its Victorian heroine addressing future generations in a book spiritedly titled Women and Labour. “You will look back at us with astonishment!” predicts the South African novelist and feminist, Olive Schreiner. “You will wonder at passionate struggles that accomplished so little; that it was in the thought of your larger realization and fuller life, that we found consolation for the futilities of our own.”
We might be the people to whom Schreiner imagines she’s writing — sitting, as we are, in the Ivy Substation, caught between Starbucks and Office Max on one side, and Trader Joe’s and Mike Miller Toyota on the other. Is all this our larger realization? Our feeling of unworthiness passes quickly enough, though, and we graciously accept her optimistic and self-effacing salutation as the lights fade. After all, for 105 minutes we’ve been amused and oddly flattered by watching a band of British thinkers groping their ways through briar patches of logic and Christian pragmatism, trying to define women’s place in society.
The time is 1888, and the debating arena is a salon called the Men and Women’s Club of London, a kind of Fabian Society for gender issues. Schreiner (Kirsten Potter), who’s created a stir with her autobiographical novel about growing up on a colonial farm, has come to town to be treated for chronic asthma and to rub shoulders with the likes of sexologist Havelock Ellis (Liam Christopher O’Brien), mathematician Karl Pearson (Erik Sorensen) and physician Sir Bryan Donkin (John Apicella). She is staying where the club has its meetings — the home of a banker whose wife, Elizabeth Cobb (Shannon Holt), is a repressed and repressing busybody who treats her younger half sister, Maria (Jennifer Rau), as a servant.
Class and gender, in fact, form the story’s thorny no man’s land — especially gender, which often translates into sex, a word that sets off on Cobb’s face a range of allergic twitches. Ironically, Act 1’s every other word of dialogue seems to be an erotic innuendo of which Cobb and others are completely oblivious. Professor Pearson, a square-jawed man of science, holds to the prevailing notion that women find the sex act icky and do it only to procreate. The foppish Ellis, who tends to writhe rather than walk and sprawl instead of sit, counters that women are orgasms waiting to happen, while Olive believes that the absence of women in the workplace relegates them to being parasites. And carnal equality has liberating possibilities, she says.
Olive, nevertheless, is deeply smitten with Pearson. So is Cobb, in her own puritanical way, and, even more demurely, so is Maria. To round things out, Sir Bryan pines for his respiratory patient Olive (attired through Act 1 in men’s clothes). Here, Goldberg infiltrates her scenes with the real-life quirks, beliefs and afflictions of her central characters, most of whom are a blushing and stammering group of seekers afraid of what they might find.
If only the second act continued the first’s collision of ideas and unrequited longings — if only there were a second act. Instead, Goldberg merely makes silly what she made witty before. All the prudish aversions to sex and lower-class existence become shriekingly over-the-top. After delivering an amusingly ignorant lecture on the inferiority of women, Professor Pearson boasts of his perceptiveness and says, “That’s why the world needs people like me.” Before, he was merely a misguided fool; now we feel he should be burned in effigy. Which means we’ve become anointed with the kind of hindsight and enlightened superiority that allows Goldberg to stuff Olive’s mouth with words like sexist, racist and classist.
All of this is a shame, because the production, sensitively directed by Chay Yew, has the look and feel of a deeper work. Yevgenia Nayberg’s set best interprets what, intellectually, Goldberg’s play wants to be: Surrounding a cozy drawing room of Victorian furniture are three walls of vast, almost spectral bookshelves in which the books are spaced far apart, suggesting the gaps of society’s knowledge about itself. Yew’s cast never disappoints, either. The vivacious Potter resists whatever temptations there may be to play Olive as a martyr. O’Brien’s noodle-limbed Ellis is another fine turn — feverish but never a buffoon. Holt’s skittish, vinegary Mrs. Cobb, however, best embodies the comedic promise of Act 1. When someone refers to the proletariat, Holt exhales, “The underclasses!” as though she’d discovered an earwig in her compact.
Sex Parasite might have seemed new 40 years ago, but the fact that the Taper organization finds it compelling satire today suggests that Ms. Schreiner’s introduction to her book was really aimed at a future that still lies ahead of us.
SEX PARASITE | By JESSICA GOLDBERG | TAPER, TOO at THE IVY SUBSTATION, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City | Through April 18 | (213) 628-2772