Sexual Perversity in Chicago; The Duck Variations

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

Sexual Perversity
In Chicago
The Duck Variations

David Mamet

Now, many people who know
his 1974 play Sexual Perversity in Chicago–the work that first earned
him wide attention, and the second production (along with The Duck Variations)
of the Atlantic Theater Co.’s all-Mamet season–might well hear such
a story and say, "It figures." Since its premiere, Sexual Perversity
has been the supreme campus teaser, the play every angry freshman wishes he
had the talent and balls to write, reveling in its torrents of demeaning, macho
crudeness and confused rage at women for capriciously hoarding their favors.
There’s more to the work, of course, but that’s not obvious to those
still fixated on the sort of adolescent wounds and fantasies that drive it.
In any case, the reason the play is of more than prurient interest a quarter
century into its prurient career is that it was actually written by a young
man who, for all his interest in sex and a steady salary, had seen through the
masturbatory desiccation and spiritual devastation of his culture’s image-madness.

As he explains in "Girl
Copy," Mamet never felt competent at the men’s magazine and soon left,
although his employers liked his work. He was ultimately bored by the packaged
fantasies he was asked to peddle, his superego never allowed him to write about
his real fantasies, and the result was what he calls "anomie." Summing
up, he cites Kurt Vonnegut: "A young man is admiring the centerfold of
some girlie mag. He shows it to an older man and says, ‘Look at that woman!’
‘Son, that’s not a woman,’ the older man says, ‘that’s
a photograph.’"

Bernie Litko, the strutting,
swaggering centerpiece of Sexual Perversity in Chicago, is essentially
a clone of Vonnegut’s young man. He’s a product of the confusion of
image and flesh, the preference for image over flesh in a culture that compulsively
fetishizes ideal bodies and thus fosters self-hatred and emotional isolation
on a mass scale. Acting as a sexual mentor to his friend and coworker Danny
Shapiro (although he probably has no more sexual experience), Bernie helps ruin
Danny’s chances at a satisfying relationship with Deborah Soloman, an illustrator
he meets and moves in with. Deborah is able to see through the sick, envious
hostility of her former roommate, a poisonously lonely kindergarten teacher
named Joan Webber. Danny, however, is too naive and credulous to recognize that
Bernie’s cocky stories are implausible and his vision of sexuality has
nothing to do with real women ("The Way to Get Laid is to Treat Em Like
Shit"). Danny is also too fearful and unimaginative to rise above the catch-phrase-analysis
that passes for thinking all around him. As Deborah says, bitterly, before they
split: "I’m a hindrance. You’re trying to understand women and
I’m confusing you with information."

Contrary to what some reviewers
have said, it’s surprising how gracefully this truculently youthful, one-hour
work has aged. Alexander Dodge, the designer of Hilary Hinckle’s production,
knocked himself out hunting down typical, cheap 1970s furniture for his cluttered
and distracting multilevel set (which exiles all the intimate bar scenes to
the lower stratosphere and constantly burdens the actors with a pointless obstacle
course), but the play itself proves curiously indifferent to such period immersion.
Time-bound matters that once seemed central, such as disco-era singles bars,
sexual permissiveness and paranoia over first-wave feminism, now fade to unimportance
beside the play’s chilling picture of permanent human disassociation. Hinckle’s
fine actors (three of them, at any rate) needed no more realism than Rick Gradone’s
dead-on period costumes to bring this picture colorfully alive.

Josh Hamilton finds extraordinary
variety in the bleak shallows of Danny’s stunted emotions, his comical
stupidity the perfect complement to Clark Gregg’s emptily confident and
upbeat Bernie. Gregg also brings a subtle, winking self-consciousness to his
performance, which is risky but ultimately fruitful, making the action seem
rooted as much in the age of cyberporn and Internet chat rooms as in the heyday
of Hefner. Kate Blumberg’s Deborah is an appealing and vibrant youngster
whose earnest aloofness makes it just plausible that she’d hook up with
a dud like Danny. The one casting blunder is Joan, in whom Kristin Reddick finds
so little color and nuance that, as an icon of femaleness, her bland, unvaryingly
hostile character ends up seeming as reductive and spurious as a porn image.

Interestingly enough, the
40-minute Duck Variations (published with Sexual Perversity and
often produced with it) lends an air of gravity to Sexual Perversity
that it doesn’t have on its own. This 1971 play is about two men in their
60s who could be Bernie and Danny decades later. Emil and George sit on a park
bench and, for 14 scenes, speak about ducks, apparently as an oblique way of
discussing the fears, disillusionments and regrets in their own lives.

Though they seem to be friends,
they decline to call each other that, and their conversation frequently degenerates
into captious nit-picking, gratuitous belligerence and abrupt denial. Each tries
repeatedly to seize authority concerning discussion points that are never resolved
and seem inconsequential to both. ("Did you know that many human societies
are modeled on those of our animal friends?" "Pish." "I
beg to differ about it." "Pish foo.") Ultimately, in the same
way Bernie and Danny only seem happy when they’re "acting" the
parts of each other’s loyal beaver-hunting buddies, George and Emil only
seem happy when they lose themselves in imaginary scenarios, briefly "acting"
together as ducks, hunters or (at the very end) ancient Greeks.

John Tormey and Peter Maloney
are perfectly adequate as George and Emil, as far as their prodigious character-building
talents can guide them. The problem is, a very little acting detail goes a long
way in this most Beckettian of Mamet’s early works. Tormey and Maloney
often come off as doing too much. As in Beckett, these roles require as much
attention to the staccato music of the author’s chiseled verbal cadences
and the sculptural shape of the play’s static physical circumstance as
to the development of coherent personalities. The embodied reality in this production
is poignant and realistic–hundreds of little sighs, eye-rolls, lip-lickings,
finger-raisings and so on–but it’s also looser and less disciplined
than the play needs to remain visually and aurally interesting.

Atlantic Theater, 336
W. 20th St., (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.), 239-6200, through Feb. 6.

Kira Obolensky

If Sexual Perversity
could be called the apotheosis of freshman sensibility, then Kira Obolensky’s
Lobster Alice is surely the nadir of the sophomoric. How this dreadfully
tedious, fatuously posturing work earned the respect of clever John Guare (as
reported in the December issue of American Theatre) and then received
an elaborate production at Playwrights Horizons is truly beyond comprehension.

A "fictional speculation"
on the six weeks Salvador Dali spent at the Disney Studios in Hollywood in 1946
(when he was commissioned to create an animated short based on a popular song),
Lobster Alice is an utterly inert, effect-driven tour through an ostensibly
strange and whimsical landscape that is in fact as banal and familiar as William
Inge’s Bus Stop. Dali arrives, throws the lives of the Disney animator
John Finch (currently working on Alice in Wonderland) and his assistant
(coincidentally named Alice) into disarray with baffling behavior and enigmatic,
pseudo-profound statements ("to the surrealist, the world is a door, and
one only needs a dream to achieve the reckless feeling of pleasure"). Then
Dali departs, leaving behind only "14 brilliant seconds" of animation,
and the others get to act as if they’re irrevocably altered when, actually,
they’re exactly the same.

Both Finch and Dali, on
whom the exceptional talents of David Patrick Kelly are wasted, are wholly cliches:
the stiff-necked, well-meaning company man versus the scoffing and beguiling
hoaxster-artiste, prude American versus European sexpot. The plot has zero propulsion,
its only questions being what this foulmouthed poser will do with his time and
which man (Dali or Finch) will satisfy Alice’s restless sensuality. Jessica
Hecht is appealing as Alice, but it doesn’t matter much because the threadbare
action, peripheral to her character, is patched together with halfhearted tricks
like the would-be disturbing introduction of incongruous objects, slips of the
tongue that sound planned, trite references to Alice in Wonderland and
technically show-offy changes in the landscape outside the studio window. Most
of this is accompanied by schematic and flatfooted explanations a la "Art
History 101," then redundantly illustrated, leaving an overall impression
of shameless and ineffectual pandering to everyone who (like Obolensky, it seems)
discovered modernism only yesterday.

Playwrights Horizons,
416 W. 42nd St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.), 279-4200, through Jan. 23.