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Theatre in Review: The Opposite of Love/Midnight Coleslaw's Tales from Beyond the Closet!!!

Top: Danny Gardner, Ashley Griffin. Photo: Jeremy Varner. Bottom: Charlene Incarnate, Amando Houser. Photo: Richard Termine.

It has been a bad week for sex in the theatre. One of the above offerings treats everyone's favorite activity as a purely economic transaction, the other delivers transgression without much wit. Neither -- I'm sorry to say -- will advance the cause of carnal congress on these warm summer nights.

In The Opposite of Love, presented by New York Rep at Royal Family Productions, Eloise, a graduate student, hires Will, a hustler, for an erotic encounter. Arriving at her posh apartment, he is ready to get busy, but she remains oddly skittish, even standoffish. After resisting the advances for which she has prepaid, she blurts out a confession: "My uncle started molesting me when I was three, but technically I'm still a virgin and I haven't...so I just needed to get over myself and do it with someone...safe."

This is a new situation for Will, whose customers prefer service with a smile. Once it becomes clear that nothing will happen that evening, Will, touched by her predicament, proposes once-weekly, no-strings conversation sessions that might, eventually, lead to consummation. "Just promise you won't fall in love with me," he adds. "That never ends well."

As it happens, there's not much chance of that. The rest of The Opposite of Love consists of Will and Eloise's get-togethers, an ad hoc, amateur psychotherapy that lets her air her anxieties. Meanwhile, he tries gambits like a game of Twister to relax her defenses. Fat chance: Eloise is convinced that the male half of the population has definitively divorced sex from affection; if she gives it up without a ring and promise, she is convinced she will be cast aside. Then again, given how she freezes up when a man comes close, how can she know? Will does his best to be sensitive and understanding, although he can't help resenting the family money that lets her dwell -- unhappily, to be sure -- in such luxury; from the start, his has been a strictly hardscrabble existence.

Ashley Griffin's premise, a woman paying for sex, is at least a little bit novel but, sadly, her characters aren't interesting enough. Eloise is cold, judgmental, and bitter, unwilling to examine the trauma that has shadowed her adult existence. (Has she ever been to a therapist? If so, we don't hear about it. Her family and the circumstances of her abuse are left undiscussed.) Oddly, she is an art history major; one wonders what she makes of all those nudes painted under the male gaze. Will, seduced at thirteen by an older woman -- an incident he refuses to recognize as rape -- is one of life's cheerful losers, getting by, but only just, on sex for hire and tolerating unacceptable abuse, especially from his male clients. "I am cute," he notes. "Gotta take advantage of my skill set." Well, for however long it lasts.

Griffin stars as Eloise and it is remarkable how little sympathy she rouses for her put-upon character; Danny Gardner is rather better as Will, who finds himself, for the first time, struggling over a connection to a client. If Rachel Klein's direction doesn't uncover much tension in the characters' back and forth, it's not surprising since the action feels so aimless. Brendan McCann's set is fairly basic -- this is an ultra-low-budget production, to be sure -- but Zach Pizza's lighting provides some attractive pattern work on the drapes and deck. No other designers are credited.

The only real interest held by The Opposite of Love is technical: One can't help wondering how Griffin will write herself out of the corner into which she has put herself. After eighty minutes or so spent rehashing the same points, she drops a major twist, dedicated to the proposition that there is no user like the self-proclaimed victim. But we'd have to feel some emotional interest in Eloise and Will for it to have much impact. Bottom line: She needs a shrink, and he needs a new line of work.

Midnight Coleslaw's Tales from Beyond the Closet!!!, now at The Tank, is a kind of queer version of Night Gallery, courtesy of playwright Joey Merlo. The title character is played by the aggressive Charlene Incarnate, who began her career as a drag performer but has transitioned to being a woman; she enters, dancing and lip-synching to a pop number, then announces to her two backup dancers, known in the script as "butch goblins." "That's enough. Everyone get the fuck out. [To the audience] Not any of you. You stay right here with Motha' Midnight my little fleshbags and heteroholes."

If you think things will improve from there, you are an eternal optimist. The evening consists of three one-acts supposedly mixing humor and horror. "Chair" focuses on Babe and Hun, an amusingly self-involved heterosexual couple obsessed with staging the perfect wedding and finding the ideal New Jersey home -- at least until they pick up a chair they find on the street. It is covered in human skin, a point that somehow passes them by; in any case, each becomes erotically obsessed with it, which is especially worrying when it morphs into a rotting flesh creature. When last seen, Babe is trying to terminate the situation with an axe. The piece has a few laughs, especially when Rebecca Robertson, as Hun, channels her inner Meg Ryan, offering unsettling squeals of delight.

Next up is "Daddy's Girl," in which the middle-aged Pat is cleaning out her childhood home, aided by her wife Mel. (Pat's failing mother has entered an assisted living facility.) This activity is interrupted by the appearance of Daddy, the revivified corpse of Pat's long-dead father. It is awkward in more ways than one: Pat never came out to Daddy, who died long before such issues were on the table. This sets the stage for an embarrassing regression, with the sixtyish Pat playing Daddy's girl and evasively passing off Mel as her "friend." Mel, you can be sure, takes drastic action to reassert her marital rights, letting Daddy know, in no uncertain terms, what turns his daughter on. This is the weakest of the sketches, being overlong, aimless, and, at least on the night I attended, hesitantly performed.

Things improve notably when David Greenspan takes the stage for "Dr. Renfield," about an '80s-era survivor who, having lived through the highs (sex, drugs, nightclubs) and lows (AIDS) of those years, isn't at all happy to see all his gay friends and acquaintances make like Babe and Hun, running off to marry and raise children in the 'burbs. Is this piece better written or does this authoritative performer transcend the writing? (With a voice that reproduces the tone and timber of a clarinet and an army of gestures seemingly borrowed from the grand 19th-century orators, Greenspan is almost certainly the most mannered performer in New York, but he knows what he is doing; at all times, he is an attention-getter.) In any case, Moro gives voice to a vividly realized character faced with the unwelcome changes wrought by the passage of time. It's too bad that he cuts it off too soon, bringing the entire cast onstage for a rendition of ABBA's "Gimme Gimme Gimme."

To be sure, Greenspan elevated On Set with Theda Bara, also by Merlo and seen at The Brick last January. A confusing and somewhat overwrought piece, it nevertheless benefited from Jack Serio's disciplined direction, and it revealed Merlo as a writer to watch, blessed with a gift for surreal, fantastical words and a distinctive point of view. Midnight Coleslaw... has its good points, including Euxuan Ong's clever, skeleton-based projection imagery, the puppet designs of Michela Micalizio (most prominently Midnight Coleslaw's friend Boner, a disembodied skull, and Caroline Eng's expansive sound design. And The Tank, God bless it, is a space for artists to try out new ideas, meaning it is also a safe space to fail. But I'd like to think some professionalism is involved. In the press release, Merlo says, "Camp is part of my identity as a queer person;" fine, but camp is supposed to be funny, not puerile. Let's chalk it up to a Pride Month prank and let it go at that. And let's hope sex gets better theatrical treatment in the weeks to come. --David Barbour

(4 June 2024)

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