Tim Fountain enters the Royal Court’s studio-size Theater Upstairs, his belt unbuckled, as one might expect from a writer/director-turned-actor who goes on to spend the next 90 minutes talking about “shags” (and, no, we’re not talking carpets). The posturings of a rampant exhibitionist? Some will think so, just as others — especially in a British moral climate suddenly exercised, more than two years after it opened, about “Jerry Springer — The Opera” — will be shocked, right on cue.
Step back, and “Tim Fountain Sex Addict” can be said to possess an unabashedly prurient and rude quality that turns out, by the end, to be oddly endearing. On one level, Fountain, the 37-year-old northern Englander responsible for such excellent work as the Quentin Crisp bioplay “Resident Alien,” is saying the unsayable, laying bare (sorry) his method of dealing with impulses that — let’s face it — link virtually the entire human race.
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But on another level, he’s constructing no more or less careful a persona than Eve Ensler does when talking about her vagina or Dame Edna in dealing with “her” possums. “This is the show where you decide who I shag,” Fountain tells us by way of an opening gambit to an evening that will conclude with him proceeding on to that night’s conquest, his “shag-cam” in tow. How different is that, really, from voting out the various contestants on “Celebrity Big Brother,” the TV reality program forever teasing viewers with the prospect of sex? At least Fountain delivers.
Fine, you say, but is “Sex Addict” a play? Well, it has a director, Natasha Betteridge, who presumably deserves credit for keeping Fountain on the tightrope between genuine ingratiation — someone less charming would lose the audience within minutes — and no less recognizable self-indulgence.
And for all its gameshow construct, the prize being the performer on (fully clothed) view, the piece also works as a sometimes hilarious, often dismaying, never boring tour of contemporary sexual habits and mores, and not just Fountain’s. There are sly jokes at the expense of both Stephen Daldry and the supposed peccadilloes of (if Fountain is accurate) at least some of the staff of Disney, though two lawyers were in attendance on opening night to make sure Fountain’s sharing of addictions didn’t get too out-of-hand.
Those poised for outrage should be aware that “Sex Addict” is scarcely the first Royal Court entry to explore coprophilia: That dubious milestone was marked by Anthony Neilson’s 1997 play “The Censor.” At the same time, it probably is the first to provide an illustrated slide show of erstwhile London “cottages,” in the non-Wordsworthian sense of the word.
Nor is Fountain’s desire to enlighten limited to England. A quick trawl through some more notable cruising grounds encompasses platform six of the Boston railway station.
At times, the tone is a little too calculated in its conflation of Alan Bennett and Screw publisher Al Goldstein, the cozy folded into an adolescent desire to shock — Fountain’s own shagging, we’re informed, began at age 14 while on his way to the Bronte Parsonage in the Yorkshire town of Haworth. (What would Mr. Rochester say?)
“Sex Addict” is better when it lets statistics and other people’s desires speak for themselves: the gay London cabbie, for instance, who drives a stationwagon so as to maximize his number of encounters (72 last year, apparently). Or the unveiling of obscene Web sites so extreme that Fountain moves swiftly on, determined “to return to plain old-fashioned buggery.”
Each show ends with a new beginning, as the audience selects Fountain’s latest shag — he’s nearing the 5,100 mark — from various candidates who either volunteer via the show’s Web site or nominate themselves from the theater crowd. On press night, the voting by some measure awarded the honors to a very sweet-seeming 48-year-old optometrist named Peter, who was celibate for seven years, he explained, in order to see “what happens when you say no.”
As it turns out, Fountain and his latest recruit weren’t able to get up to much, since Court health and safety requirements precluded the sort of dressing-room shenanigans Fountain surely had in mind. Instead, the two men are planning a real date, which may explain why Fountain looked faintly nervous near the end.