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Theatre in Review: Devil of Choice (Labyrinth Theater/Cherry Lane)

Elizabeth Canavan, Florencia Lozano. Photo: David Zayas Jr.

I'm going to make a wild guess that Devil of Choice got picked up on the strength of two monologues: Labyrinth is very much an actor's company, and playwright Maggie Diaz Bofill has provided her leading ladies with a pair of speeches to remember -- no matter how much one desires the sweet balm of forgetfulness.

The first speech, which I imagine could become quite a talking point in the next few weeks, is delivered by Pepper, an unhappily married music librarian working at a college where her husband, Sal, is a literature professor. She gets on the phone to her best friend, Delia -- who, unbeknownst to her, is Sal's lover -- and announces, "I just got eaten out and f---ked really good!" She then dives deeply into the details, going on, at length, about female genital hygiene, the associated odors, possible diseases, and their effect on her sex life. I've searched the script, looking for a single detail I can share, but I return empty-handed.

Reader, I was aghast. And, based on the nervous titters spreading throughout the audience, I wasn't alone. (The woman next to me kept saying, "Oh no. Oh no.") This is a vagina monologue that not even Eve Ensler could love. In fact, I can see her in my mind's eye, blushing and reaching for the blue pencil. The only thing amusing about it is the sight of Florencia Lozano, as Delia, on the other end of the line, gobsmacked and robotically pushing potato chips into her mouth. At that moment, I feel, the actress is channeling the audience's reaction as much as her character's.

Later, Delia, fed up with Sal's limited attentions and his strutting, alpha-male personality, launches into an exercise in self-excoriation, wondering why she is forever attracted to men with big egos. (As David Zayas, who plays Sal, looks on in dismay, Lozano tears into the speech, giving a hard stress to the word "ego" each time she says it, which she does seven times in a three-line speech.) What starts out as a burst of fury turns inward, leading to a mordant self-examination in which she admits to feeling safe in the presence of grandiose men. And, on the spot, she works through this revelation, deciding that it is time she stood up for herself. She describes herself as a mushroom attached to a sequoia, concluding that it's time to become a sunflower. If it's a little heavy on the botany, it is, at least, a real speech, with a direct line of thought that Lozano pursues with vigor -- and, for a moment, it seems as if something is actually happening in Devil of Choice.

Alas, this is an illusion, momentary in its impact. Bofill's play is a supposedly comic triangle focusing on three characters who amount to a collective pain in the neck. Sal and Pepper, for example, should take the express train to the nearest divorce court. The play begins with her complaining that he continually demeans her in public; a little later, watching her try on a pair of roller skates, he announces, in front of Delia, that she has "the coordination of a three-legged platypus." Occupying the same bed is, apparently, a trial for them because, Pepper says, she leaves "big pools of drool on his pillow that his face lands smack in the middle of," adding, "I suck the heat out of him, too." We never see a moment of mutual interest, of offhand affection; they are a little more than a pair of Bickersons, whingeing unamusingly about their captive state.

By the time of the speech about drooling in bed, Delia is sleeping with Sal, because -- well, damned if I can tell you. (See the above graph, with reference to mushrooms and sequoias.) Anyway, the affair is supposed to be just for fun, but Delia gets grabby, trying to arrange an elaborate ruse that will allow them to spend the night together. Instead, Sal shows up and, reaching under her sexy black evening gown, masturbates her while explaining that the overnight isn't going to happen; he then wipes his hands on one of her dinner napkins. This is followed by an argument about cooking veal, which is meant to reveal their disconnect, but is just another bizarre, out-of-left-field revelation in a play loaded with them.

Bofill paces these unsavory -- and often unsanitary -- encounters with scenes from Sal's lectures on Goethe's Faust, which are supposed to connect with the plot. Sal, explaining how Faust can find salvation despite his many crimes, articulates the play's theme thusly: "To strive is divine. But to stop, to settle, is to rot. In hell. Forever." This, of course, is meant to explain Sal's wandering ways. Then again, maybe he's just a schmuck.

Shira-Lee Shalit directs these proceedings as if helming the pilot of a particularly noisy sitcom, which is probably the only way to go. David Zayas has a tough assignment as Sal, whose appeal is, to put it politely, hard to isolate, but at least his charisma comes through in his classroom scenes, during which he interacts amusingly with the audience. Lozano is an accomplished comic actress, and even with material this weak she has a blessedly light touch; often she greets some of the bad behavior whirling around her with some amusingly open-mouthed stares. Pepper is a human train wreck -- alternately childish and vindictive when not peddling TMI about her bedroom activities -- and I don't think it's Elizabeth Canavan's fault that she can't make her more appealing. The violinist Melisa McGregor is on hand, playing solos between scenes; this is, I suppose, an allusion to Pepper's abandoned career as a musician.

Shalit has opted for a bare-bones production, which at least has the virtue of keeping things moving quickly. Raul Abrego's set is spare in the extreme, with a table, a couch, a few shelves, and not much more; there is little to distinguish Kia Rogers' lighting, Lara De Bruijn's costumes, and Daniel Melnic's sound. It's good to have Labyrinth back after a fallow season, but, even if you squint, it's hard to perceive what anyone saw in such tasteless, sophomoric antics. Let's hope they move on to better things -- and quickly. -- David Barbour

(29 May 2018)

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