If only the body parts of Christopher Durang’s new play fit together as naturally as sex does with longing. A lampoon so broad, so obvious, yet laced with pitch-dark flourishes that suggest a play that might have been, “Sex and Longing” is a full-out, no-excuses blitzkrieg on the religious right and moral guardianship that surrenders two of the playwright’s most lethal weapons sophistication and nuance in the service of righteous indignation. Even Durang’s estimable sense of humor makes the casualty list, done in by lewd inflatable dolls and Christ-like visitations. Sigourney Weaver’s risky lead performance is going to charm some, alienate others and do both to most, leaving “Sex and Longing” languishing in foreplay and disappointing in climax.
“Oh, sex and longing, sex and longing,” chants a breathless Lulu (Weaver), a nymphomaniac who requires a quickie fix every 20 minutes and wards off disturbing memories of some past trauma by scrunching her face and forcing the emerging disturbances back to the darkest recesses of her mind. Played with a buoyancy that recalls the blithe heroines of screwball comedy, the slip-clad Lulu, who has changed her name from the too-telling Sadie Thompson, enjoys her compulsion and breezily dismisses any troublesome side effects with the same nonchalance Scarlett O’Hara put problems off until tomorrow.
Of course, Durang wants us to know that Lulu’s plight is anything but airy. Lulu’s “Exorcist”-like obscenities and take-me come-ons are a ’90s extension of Blanche DuBois’ dependence on the kindness of strangers. (Lulu even shares a last name with her theatrical ancestor.) Her emptiness makes her the perfect target for madmen of all stripes, from a sadistic serial killer with a penchant for dismembering prostitutes to a sex-obsessed preacher so determined to clean up New York that he petitions the city fathers to pass a zoning ordinance against Lulu.
The Rev. Davidson (Peter Michael Goetz) soon teams up with Bridget McCrea (Dana Ivey), a senator’s wife so prudish she believes in the death penalty for certain musicvideos and vomits in response to dirty jokes. “I long for morality, ” she laments, her rectitude unleavened by any hint of tolerance, despite (or because of) the fact that she’s lost her oldest son to AIDS. “Pass laws. Lots of laws,” is her all-purpose solution (delivered by Ivey, as most of her dialogue, with a delicious, crowd-pleasing humor that won’t be apparent in printed transcription).
Rounding out Durang’s modern fable is Justin (Jay Goede), Lulu’s gay roommate and fellow compulsive (though he requires sex only once every three hours “I have other interests,” he explains), and Sen. Harry McCrea (Guy Boyd), a spineless drunk and whoremonger used by his wife and the reverend to initiate anti-obscenity hearings. Chief target of the investigation: the authors of “Explicit Photographs of the Last 300 People We Slept With,” a genitalia-filled coffee-table book with an introduction by Camille Paglia. The authors, of course , are Lulu and Justin.
But long before he gets to the Senate hearing, Durang puts both Lulu and his audience through any number of increasingly gruesome tribulations. After submitting herself to one (thankfully offstage) gang bang, Lulu tells Justin, “I passed out for some of it, from ecstasy I guess. Or pain.” Later, when she hooks up with a ripper named Jack (Eric Thal), the play turns darker still: “I’m not here, I’m not here,” she screams as the knife-wielding sadist brutally severs the muscles in her arms. She’s saved by the reverend, who takes her home and instructs her in the ways of the Lord and proper living. Oh, and occasionally he rapes her.
That Durang can mine any laughs at all from such perversity is a testament to the talent that found better expression in “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” and “Laughing Wild.” Even here, when he hits his stride, the humor, however cartoonish, can dazzle. Attempting to teach a partially paralyzed Lulu the finer points of polite conversation, the nasty senator’s wife gets mired in her own bigotry and hate, the conversation hilariously devolving into equal parts pettiness and fascism.
Such moments of promise, along with the dark hints of Lulu’s repressed memory , give way to a third act that all but sinks any faith we may cling to for “Sex and Longing.” Durang, assisted by director Garland Wright, abandons any restraint and presents the senate hearings with the ham-fisted approach of a college revue. Jesus Christ even drops by for a visit.
Durang doesn’t go so far as to expect us to believe in divine intervention, and the Christ impostor has dire consequences for Lulu (not to mention the play itself, being the most outlandish development in a progression of silliness). And what to make of characters so broadly drawn that to call them stereotypes would be an understatement the drunken senator, the prudish wife, the lecherous preacher? Surely Durang is winking at us through the cliches, but to what end?
Or has Durang simply decided that desperate times render a more subtle approach obsolete? If so, he’s mistaken. “Sex and Longing” reveals precious little beyond which side of the political fence its author inhabits. There are intriguing bits of theater, but even a bent for the fantastical accomplishes little more than putting Tony Kushner alongside Tennessee Williams in Durang’s pantheon of homage-inspirers.
Although the cast generally does what’s expected, only Ivey, as the moralizing prig, hands in a gem. Others in the cast, Weaver included, are as good as the script lets them be, which means very good sometimes, ineffective others. Tech credits, as always for a Lincoln Center production, are top-notch.
In recent years, Durang has turned his attention to acting roles and staging his satirical cabaret revue, and the likely reaction to “Sex and Longing” won’t serve as much of a welcome back to theater. A pity. Despite his misstep here, the playwright retains a distinctive voice one that finds its way even through the indulgences of this play. “Oh, sex and longing, sex and longing,” says a Lulu desperate for fulfillment. We understand, we understand.