Three decades ago, “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” launched David Mamet from regional to national renown, its Off Broadway production also giving a significant leg up to cast member Peter Riegert. Now the latter returns the favor via an ACT revival that makes a fair case for this still-startling text as Mamet’s funniest — though one could argue its underlying pathos and disturbance get pretty much ignored. But Mamet, more than most playwrights, tends to hold up under very different interpretations — and for sheer quantity of jaw-droppingly rude laughs, this one is aces.
From a bang-for-buck perspective it pretty much needs to be given a running time under 70 minutes and ticket ceiling over $70. Perfect fare in so many ways for fringe-type theater groups, Mamet’s best works are seldom revived on high-end stages without starry casting to “compensate” for their fairly paltry demands on design or ensemble-size budgets.
Riegert (who’s worked several times as an actor with ACT artistic director Carey Perloff) stays true to “Perversity’s” original spirit by casting unknown, youngish actors. At least unknown in S.F., since all seem to have primarily New York stage resumes. (ACT’s relative lack of interest in local actors under Perloff is one reason why, after sustaining a rich talent pool in the ’70s and ’80s, the Bay Area can no longer boast a significant populace of fine thesps.)
He’s also chosen to make the play a period piece, though apart from scattered slang and cultural references (the ERA, lesbianism “as a political choice”) it hasn’t really dated at all. The Me Decade vulgarity of Christine Dougherty’s costumes — especially the guys’ garishly mismatched polyester sport coats and flared slacks — provides considerable amusement. Still, undimmed social relevance is obscured a tad by the comforting distance of camp nostalgia.
Not at all dimmed is the ferocity of Mamet’s battle-of-the-sexes microcosm. Danny (David Jenkins) is officemate and pal to the slightly older Bernie (Gareth Saxe, milking every last drop from the role’s lounge-lizard potential). The latter is a self-styled Lothario forever relating suspiciously tall tales of the “broads” he picks up and their kinky tastes. (Bestiality seems to be a running theme.) “Nobody does it normal anymore,” sighs gullible Danny in response.
Boy meets girl in the classic sense when Danny encounters Deborah (Marjan Neshat). Endangering their awkward courtship are the cynical, well-poisoning “advice” offered on one side by Bernie and on the other by Deb’s romance-soured flatmate Joan (Elizabeth Kapplow).
Infamously profane at the time, “Sexual Perversity” remains shocking in its language, which demonstrates an extraordinarily precise craft in hitting raw emotional nerves while appearing to be mere “gutter talk.” It’s extremely exaggerated, stylized filth, however, with surprising lofts of a philosophic and wistful bent.
Riegert’s headlong, head-on directorial approach is punchy and generous toward his excellent actors. The play’s mostly terse progression of dialogues, monologues and the odd hostile three-way has a rollicking, brute hilarity here that’s never less than engaging.
It would require another production, however, to fully mine the rather gruesome take on man and woman, locked into “physical and mental mutilations we cannot do without,” as Joan puts it. This play has painful depths the ACT staging barely acknowledges, strong as it is on its own terms.
Kent Dorsey contributes a stark set of multiplatformed work/living spaces. Between-scenes snippets from honky-tonk blues tracks underline the evening’s primal battle-of-the-sexes nature in a rather obvious fashion.