As everyone past the age of 22 knows, sex usually isn't about pleasure. Sex is about dealing with various levels of failure and somehow emerging on the other side with a semi-enjoyable orgasm and as few emotional scars as possible. This parade of insecurity begins immediately -- is he/she cute enough for me to be interested, but not so cute that she/he will reject me? -- and extends to what happens under the covers ("You want me to do what?").
Three decades ago, playwright David Mamet floored off-Broadway audiences with his brutally frank, obscenity-laced take on sexual gamesmanship in Sexual Perversity in Chicago. And it launched him on his well-documented career of exploring modern failures of all kinds, from the pathetic real-estate salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross to the failed dreams of the marks duped in The House of Games.
Now, Mamet's mordant, mid-1970s view of man/woman relations is once again on display in Newfangled Productions' presentation of Sexual Perversity, in association with the University of Akron Theatre Guild. And while there are some clearly dated elements in the script, including a man ranting about the evils of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, many of the self-centered attitudes and shallow observations seem all too familiar (see: The Man Show), indicating that progress in sexual interaction happens at glacial speeds.
In more than 30 blackout scenes, Mamet sketches a sexual boxing match that is only missing the ropes and a bell between rounds. Twentysomethings Deborah (Jamie Russell) and Dan (Justin Hale) meet in a museum and soon are boffing each other, much to the consternation of their respective friends, Joan (Holly Facer) and Bernie (Zak Christian). Joan, a tightly wound kindergarten teacher, is Deborah's roommate, and Bernie, Dan's co-worker, is a relentless womanizer who relishes telling Dan his dating insights ("The way to get laid is to treat 'em like shit"). While Dan and Deborah are sparring with each other, candidly exploring each other's bodies and thoughts, Bernie and Joan are injecting venom into their friends' budding relationship.
Director Joshua Douglas seemingly has his cast following a strict Mametian performance credo, which calls upon actors to just say the words and let the story tell itself. The young cast handles this frequently off-putting acting style with a casual ease, although Christian could have exhibited more edge in Zak's spectacularly vulgar rants. Director Douglas also has a sultry jazz singer, Megan Elk, perform between many of the scenes, but an oft-repeated tune with a lyric that ended in different but predictably sexual puns muddled the tone of the production.
Although Mamet is known for his incessant four-letter vocabulary, his softer side is shown when Deborah reminisces about her childhood: "Once I asked my mom for a cookie, but she thought I said a hug, so she gave me a hug, and I said thanks. I didn't want a cookie anyway." In a play jammed with hostility, misunderstandings, and despair, it's a tender and appreciated moment.