Credit Leslie Ayvazian for coming up with an original way to dramatize the ever-popular, but oh-so-dull subject of domestic boredom. “Make Me” applies a bit of S&M to three couples locked in intimate relationships at various stages of paralysis, to the point of sending one dissatisfied wife off to take lessons in male-management from a whip-wielding dominatrix. Device is a genuinely clever way to get at the perennial issue of gender-based control, but in her exhaustive pursuit of superficial behavior parallels, the scribe fails to dig deeper into her characters, reducing her comedy to its mechanics.
Ayvazian (“Nine Armenians”) gets plenty of mileage from the slick production Christian Parker has mounted for the Atlantic Theater Company, where he currently serves as associate a.d. Coming up on Anna Louizos’ multi-level set of two suburban households and a dungeon, the lights (Josh Bradford) are bright, the costumes (Theresa Squire) are cute, and the sound level (Jill BC DuBoff) is high. Everything on this stage says: Comedy Tonight.
The performances are also uniformly sharp. Jessica Hecht leads off as Connie, a thoroughly cowed slavey-wife determined to win back some degree of marital control from Eddie (Anthony Arkin), who may be a perfectly good chiropractor, but as a husband comes off as a petty tyrant. Hecht is nothing short of adorable as she prances around their bedroom in a safe and silly version of dominatrix gear, complete with black rainboots made of plastic and trimmed in red plaid.
Hecht holds onto that sweetness when Connie handcuffs Eddie to a chair and goes off to the East Village for her first lesson from Mistress Lorraine, a bona-fide dominatrix played with impressive commitment by Candy Buckley. The lesson becomes a lab session, as Lorraine demonstrates her skills on a client who calls himself Phil (Richard Masur), but is actually mayor of the city.
Meanwhile, back in New Jersey, Eddie’s efforts to free himself from bondage have been overheard by Sissy (Ellen Parker) and Hank (JR Horne), the elderly couple next door. Sizing up the situation, Sissy gets into the S&M spirit and tries to maneuver her milquetoast husband into taking a more aggressive role in their terminally dull marriage.
With everyone secured in their comic places, scribe proceeds to develop her mousetrap of a play into a series of scenes illustrating the parallel behaviors of the three couples as each person struggles for dominance over his or her partner.
In places, a show of rebellion can be purely comical, as when Connie stands up to Eddie by refusing to make him breakfast. In other places, it turns sad, even dangerous, as when Phil stands up to Mistress Lorraine and reminds her that she works for him. And when all three couples are dancing around the same issue of domination — as they do when the women simultaneously insist that their men talk to them — it’s a genuine revelation of something that transcends age or social status.
, roughly halfway through the play, it becomes obvious Ayvazian is more comfortable with illustration than analysis. Happy to play on comic surfaces, she rings endless variations on her basic theme and develops elaborate mechanisms to support her parallel plots. But at no point does she go deeper into the intimate relationships that she’s opened up. Which means while the characters don’t exactly go back to the same master-slave positions they held at the start of the play, they haven’t exchanged many insights, either.
And while Parker’s savvy stagecraft keeps things spinning, there’s really no substitute for that thrilling moment when everything crashes to the ground and everyone wakes up.