Penumbra Theater’s new production of Michael Gurr’s 1992 play, “Sex Diary of an Infidel,” promises a mediation on the south Asian sex trade, and the cheapening of human dignity it represents. Unfortunately, the show bogs down amid the staging demands of the script, and a talented cast is left with a sense of opportunity missed.
The story concerns a reporter named Jean (Carolyn Pool), who in the opening scene receives an award for her gritty storytelling about the marginal and dispossessed. She and her photog boyfriend Martin (Sam L. Landman) plan a trip to Manila, where they hope to expose the reality of Westerners using their privilege and bankbooks to make a sexual playground of the lives of others. Once there, they make the acquaintance of Max (Phil Kilbourne), a pimp whose prize commodity is pre-op transsexual Toni (Alexis Camins).
Things then become complicated indeed, and the thread of lucidity in this production becomes increasingly difficult to grasp.
While Jean is in Manila, her apartment is burgled by amoral ex-junkie Tony (Casey Greig) (the subject of Jean’s award-winning work). Tony makes himself at home, seduces Jean’s married sister, and compels Jean to return to Melbourne to mop things up. Along the way Jean somehow bungles an errand for Max, costing him a fortune, although his approbation is diminished somewhat by his odd and until-now hidden sexual history with the well-traveled reporter.
By this point it has become apparent that this is a very difficult play to stage. Gurr employs snippets and cross-cuts that require the actors to freeze in place at times while another scene gets started. As a result one senses the players being forced to halt when they should have been building momentum. But the blame for this failure can’t be laid at Gurr’s feet, for his drama evokes effective depths regarding identity, legitimacy and sincerity that are only hinted at in this production.
The key transformations of Act Two come across as nothing more than baffling. Jean reveals herself as a manipulator and a fraud, while Toni abandons his semi-bondage as a sex worker for a life as a revolutionary in the Philippine jungle.
The combination of cynicism and idealism in the script is provocative, but on opening night there was little sense that anyone involved had worked through what it all meant — or, if they had, how to communicate their insight. One comes away feeling that a noble attempt has been made at a tough work, but that the work in question is far from finished.