Given her new play’s sexually explicit title, its subtitle (“Because Obscenity Begins at Home”) and its inflammatory subject matter, it is clear that Paula Vogel is venturing into deep, dark water. In her black farce “Hot ‘n’ Throbbing,” she sometimes swims, sometimes flounders, sometimes sinks, and the overall impression is that she isn’t in complete control of her extremely difficult material.
At least Vogel poses numerous questions, including what differences there are between pornography, erotica and adult entertainment and what, if anything, they contribute to sexual abuse. And “Hot ‘n’ Throbbing” is a legitimate reaction to the current rash of sexual revelations on the sleaze-talkshow circuit.
Because of its potentially argument-raising content, it inevitably brings to mind David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” which received its premiere at American Repertory Theater two years ago. But Vogel’s play lacks the sly intellectual game-playing of Mamet’s questionable work, and when all is said and done, it’s really just another reworking of the dysfunctional family cliche.
Still, Vogel’s experience and professionalism redeem the play from time to time with passages of skillful dialogue and character revelations, some of them very funny: At one point, utterly exasperated by her daughter’s behavior, the play’s central character — a divorced mother of two teenage children — says, “I’m not a mean woman, but I’m going to enjoy seeing her have children of her own some day.”
Embraced in a fast 85 minutes, “Hot ‘n’ Throbbing” opens with the mother tapping furiously at her laptop computer. A taxi dancer in a glass booth at the side of the stage narrates and enacts what she’s writing, which happens to be female pornography, though the woman denies the “porn” label. She writes both books and film scripts, and the play unfolds as if it were one or more of her works, complete with jump cuts, retakes and flashbacks.
The storyline brings the woman’s drunken, unemployed ex-husband crashing into her home one night when she’s alone. It culminates in a brutal snuff-movie coup de grace after the woman, softened by her ex-husband’s inability to afford the services of a prostitute, offers him sexual comfort — all this after shooting him bloodily in the bare buttocks.
Diane D’Aquila and Jack Willis play the couple with expertise and power. Too much so, perhaps, when paired with Vogel’s writing. The woman we see and hear seems too intelligent and put-together to give herself to a man who once beat her to near-death. And the man we see and hear seems too articulate and sympathetic for the drunk, uneducated blue-collar brute he is, though this may be part of Vogel’s shock tactics.
One gaping trap involved in writing a play reacting to exploitation TV shows and films is that of the play itself turning exploitive. Vogel hasn’t entirely avoided this trap, and some members of her audience may resent being manipulated by her. Anne Bogart’s direction and the cast’s performances are, on the whole, assured, though no one has solved the built-in problems of simulated sex, violence and taxi-dancing on a small stage at close quarters with the audience. The mirrored, ramped set and lurid lighting echo the play’s content.
Also in the play are the ex-couple’s children, a son obsessed with voyeurism and masturbation and a sexpot daughter rapidly going down the same path as her mother, former taxi dancer. The play ends with the daughter sitting down at the laptop and taking her mother’s place, though it now seems as though she’s writing Vogel’s play. This hints at the possibility that, as in her AIDS-inspired “The Baltimore Waltz,” Vogel is drawing on autobiographical sources.
The head of Brown U.’s play-writing workshop, Vogel also incorporates quotes “stolen from lofty European novels and trashy American ‘B’ movies” into her play , including such sources as James Joyce, Henry Miller, Vladimir Nabokov, William Acton, D.H. Lawrence and “The Amityville Horror.” This doesn’t really add any resonance to it.
Nor do the play’s two other characters, Voice Over and Voice. Both are in glass booths narrating and commenting on the action, the male voice sometimes adopting a Viennese accent to make psychological analyses of the characters’ sexual hang-ups. The play may have more impact if it were simplified or if it were turned into a film script.
The play has not come to American Repertory Theater’s New Stages series out of the blue. It was workshopped by New York’s Circle Repertory Company in October 1992 and developed via grants from the National Endowment for the Arts; a fellowship from the Bunting Institute, Radcliffe College; and residencies at the Rockefeller Foundation at Bellagio Center, Italy, and the Yaddo Colony.
It’s been awarded a major grant from the Fund for New American Plays. The Educational Foundation of America also provided major support. Clearly, “Hot ‘n’ Throbbing” doesn’t lack for supporters, though as the play stands, it’s finding it hard to live up to their faith in it.