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Theatre in Review: Conversations After Sex (ThisIsPopBaby/Irish Arts Center)

Fionn Ó Loingsigh, Kate Stanley Brennan. Photo: Eman Hassan

As Maureen McGovern has long reminded us, there's got to be a morning after. Or a late-afternoon postlude. Or, well, any time of the day or night as the heroine of Conversations After Sex makes her way across dozens of Dublin bedrooms, hotel rooms, and bedsits in search of carnal pleasure -- and, perhaps, something else. Rarely does a playwright put his cards on the table so thoroughly with his title; this is a play about the things people say -- friendly, caustic, tender, and often idiotic -- when the afterglow wears off and reality must be faced. Thanks to Mark O'Halloran's radar-like ear for dialogue, even the most seemingly banal exchanges can yield surprising revelations.

O'Halloran tracks his lead character, known only as She, in her erotic adventures over the course of a year. Armed with an online app -- not Tinder, she shudders -- she runs the gamut with a series of male pickups, most of whom return for extra sessions. There's the eminently self-involved A, with whom she loves to argue, and whose name she still doesn't know after a full year. B is a gentle Brazilian emigrant, a geothermal engineer at home reduced to cleaning offices in Ireland. C is loutish, laddish, and xenophobic, casually recalling an incident of sexual abuse that leaves a ghastly aftertaste -- but he is also a reliable supplier of high-quality cocaine. In addition to subpar bedroom performances, D offers plenty of TMI about his girlfriend troubles. E is a seemingly happy day drinker, unsteady on his feet and secretly on the run from an unappeasable sadness.

Many of these men are none too bright if not fatally clueless, and O'Halloran often catches them in hilarious moments of unconscious revelation. G extols the benefits of microdosing acid, adding, "You got to figure out what your optimum dosage is." "And how is that done?" She wonders. "Trial and error, mostly," he concedes. H admits, post-coitally, to being only twenty-one. Seeing her horrified look, he adds, by way of assurance, "I love older woman." A beat. "Not that you look that old, either." "Good catch," She deadpans. C, noting the many changes to modern Dublin, says, "Everyone is brown all of a sudden," adding, "Though I have no problem with people regardless," before ranting at length about the awfulness of Romanians. During one session, A -- another oversharer -- bursts into tears over the case of chlamydia he gave his ex. Her response succinct and unprintable.

The tricky part of Conversations After Sex is that all the men are played by the gifted Fionn Ó Loingsigh, employing simple shifts of voice and attitude. (When you spend the entire play in your boxer briefs, you get no assistance from costume changes.) Thanks to some thickish accents, a certain lack of establishing detail, and a fair number of obscure local references, the play can be confusing at first. It took two or three scenes before I realized that O'Halloran didn't have in mind a La Ronde-style format featuring a parade of bed partners of both sexes. Instead, much of the play's fascination is the slowly dawning awareness that She, who is without ambition or a career, lives in an inherited home, and has just enough family money to get by -- a perfect setup for a drifting existence -- uses sex to dull the pain of a recent trauma. What starts out as a sharp-tongued comedy of modern manners morphs into one woman's erotic Purgatorio, ending in a halting encounter that might -- or might not -- might signal something more.

Indeed, Kate Stanley Brennan makes She wry, wary, and prone to sudden furies. Describing herself as "out of step with life," she adds, "I mean, I have friends. But sometimes I'd see people in town. With their bikes and smiles and friends. I seem them all laughing. All together. Doing things. And I'm fucking exhausted just looking at them." Navigating the play's jagged structure -- it's really a series of blackout sketches -- she and Ó Loingsigh make an extraordinary team, not least in terms of handling various degrees of nudity and sexual intimacy. If director Tom Creed has gotten such alert, perfectly timed work from them, the contribution of movement and intimacy director Sue Mythen is not to be overlooked.

Indeed, talent is everywhere you look: Making a smaller, but crucial, contribution is Clelia Murphy as She's older sister, stuck in a bad marriage and ready to vent about it. "I've only ever fucked three men in my whole life," she says by way of confession. "I once fucked three men in an afternoon," She says, as always, upping the ante. "Yeah, well. Horses for courses," Murphy replies, tartly.

Sarah Bacon's spare, sensible scenic design places a bed at center stage inside a cube-shaped metal frame, with projections announcing the time and location of each encounter. She has also provided the necessarily minimal costumes. Sarah Jane Shiels uses strong color ideas to create different locations and keep track of the bedmate of the moment; her work often deepens the melancholy mood onstage. Sound designer Ivan Birthistle supplies a handful of effects -- voices, birds, a burst of electronic dance music -- as well a selection of preshow hip-hop and pop tunes by Die Antwoord, Moloko, and Little Carlos.

As classic as Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and as up to the minute as a Sally Rooney novel, Conversations After Sex casts a neutral eye on its lead character's possibly pleasurable, if largely joyless, grapplings, but it finds plenty of comedy in them as well as a pervasive sorrow. It ends with the most tentative of embraces, something we haven't seen previously. Is this the beginning of real intimacy? Maybe. Would I put money on that? Not on your life. --David Barbour

(27 February 2023)

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