Is there really a clear distinction between dirty, nasty pornography and harmless “adult entertainment”? After raising that provocative question in her new play, Paula Vogel confuses the issue by filtering it through a contorted dramatic structure that will have auds scratching their heads. Lurching from expressionistic psychodrama to domestic comedy to realistic crime drama, the hybrid form clarifies little about the scribe’s thesis that pornography dehumanizes its purveyors and its consumers. The bafflement is unfortunately shared by director Les Waters, whose uneven helming sends thesps thrashing through a variety of acting styles in a futile hunt for solid ground.
Stalwart lead Lisa Emery (“The Women”) almost saves the day with a smart and sensible perf as Charlene, a divorced mother of two difficult teens who pays the bills by churning out comically trashy screenplays for feminist porno movies. Sensitive to her bratty daughter’s contempt for her line of work (kid is a first-class pain in the ass in Suli Holum’s high-energy perf), Charlene makes an amusing attempt to justify her profession by rationalizing smut is not smut when it allows “women and gays and minorities to take control of their own imaginations.”
Meanwhile, two black-clad figures insinuate themselves into the family’s featureless living room, unseen by the other characters but highly visible nonetheless in their suggestive porno-player outfits of black trench coat and dominatrix bustier. In deadpan perfs by Rebecca Wisocky and Tom Nelis, these figments of Charlene’s imagination earn some honest laughs by enacting the heavy-breathing scenes she is trying frantically to knock out on a tight deadline.
To illustrate the poor woman’s conflicted state of mind, the shadowy male figure is distracted from his strenuous copulating efforts and becomes engrossed in the copy of “Moby Dick” that Charlene keeps urging her educationally challenged daughter to read for a class assignment. The female figure takes crueler advantage of Charlene’s wandering attention by playing on the libidinous impulses of her son, Calvin (Matthew Stadelmann, making the best of his stereotypical geek role). On occasion, Charlene herself gets carried away by the sexually provocative shenanigans of her unseen visitors.
So long as the play straddles the line between domestic comedy and expressionist fantasy, it makes Vogel’s point that, like it or not, pornographic images have an insidious way of embedding themselves deep in the human consciousness. But once the impact of the stylistic conceit is exhausted, neither scribe nor director seems sure where to take the play next.
Vogel’s answer is to introduce Clyde (Elias Koteas), the drunken and abusive ex-husband whom Charlene threw out of her life after he beat her to a bloody pulp in front of their son. But instead of adding drama to the abstract issues, Clyde stops the play dead in its tracks by invading the household like some beast and forcing Charlene into behavior utterly inconsistent with the character we’ve been led to think we understand.
At least, this is what happens in Waters’ treatment, which shifts the performance style into a more realistic mode — but not realistic enough to resolve glaring questions about time sequences and character motivation.
Vogel’s instinct to darken and deepen the play comes at the right moment. But the catalytic figure of Clyde is far too brutish to take the story in any meaningful direction. Unlike the exquisitely complex villain of Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “How I Learned to Drive,” this animal couldn’t drive this vehicle out of the parking lot.