Wholesome Debbie did Dallas, and now perky Peggy does Punishment in “Pleasure + Pain,” Chantal Bilodeau’s play about a young woman whose kinky fantasy life starts messing with her vanilla real one. If that sounds like a recipe for comedy — or “Red Shoe Diaries”-style soft erotica — you’d be right on either count. In fact, both play and Jessica Heidt’s Magic Theater premiere production struggle to balance strains of domestic drama, humor and sexual boundary-pushing. Oddly, the latter is the least satisfyingly developed element, though it’s the Canadian author’s central theme here.
Peggy (Jennifer Clare) has just started a job assisting erstwhile babysitter Ruth (Catherine Smitko), who’s secretary to a college Dean (Robert Parsons). At home, Peggy lives with longtime boyfriend Rob (Max Moore), a slightly nerdy type who’s ultra-nice if no wellspring of spontaneity or passion.
Whether due to long-suppressed desires or simple boredom, Peggy has commenced a secret hobby — penning erotic stories with herself as the heroine dominating a male sex slave. She conjures onto stagespace these interludes with the tattooed, black-clad “Man” (Andrew Utter). Yet even though it’s her fantasy, this bad boy soon breaks the imaginative fourth-wall to demand he sometimes be allowed to dictate the terms of their “game.”
Peggy then starts prodding the real folks around her to see if they can satisfy her poorly articulated desires to “be out of control” and “do things I’ve never done before.” She persuades fellow cannibis virgin Ruth to get stoned. They chalk up another “first” by kissing — something that has major impact on hitherto staid, middle-aged Ruth.
Meanwhile, Peggy’s writings accidentally fall into the hands of the initially titillated Dean. He ends up incorporated into her fantasies, where she’s becoming less the dominatrix and more the punishment-begging slave. But in real life, both Dean and Rob recoil when they grasp the obsessive breadth of her desires.
As the character loses ability to separate fantasies from everyday life, one might expect Bilodeau to address an obvious question: Is Peggy going insane? Her final embrace of “darkest” desires is played as personal liberation. But how can that compute when all such progress has been made with an imaginary master she evidently thinks is real?
Though entertaining — the play’s comic aspects work best — neither text nor production pull off the ambiguity required to keep Peggy suspended between healthy metaphor and actual madness. Indeed, Clare plays her as such a stock ditherer that Peggy seems a simple sitcom ditz, sans the intellectual depth to understand erotic yearnings we thus scarcely believe she has.
She’s not a dimensionalized protagonist, but rather a sexy-helpless blank slate lacking peer friends, ambitions or interests beyond this naughty new one. It also begs belief that she would write such conventional BDSM herotica (yet exist in a total vacuum of knowledge about such tastes. Couldn’t she spend a few minutes surfing the Web?
Parsons, Smitko and Moore do fine work here, but then their scenes are the most tangibly planted in dramatic/psychological terra firma. “Pleasure + Pain” has moments that will seem hot (or offensive) to various audiences. It was perhaps a mistake to launch this BDSM 101 play in San Francisco, where the fetish community is so entrenched and accepted that the play’s perspective seems almost absurdly naive. But then, even deep in the Heartland, people now can simply turn on the computer to feel less isolated in their “sick” (as Rob puts it) desires.
Production kicks off the Magic’s annual “Hot House” repertory trilogy of new plays. Design aspects are simple but fluid. Matt McAddon’s set consists of a white-picket-fence background with various place-setting furniture rolled in and out.