Jane Anderson has never let a four-hander’s limitations deter her from the big issues, from transgender readjustment to the right-to-die debate. In “The Escort” she tackles her diciest theme yet, the American way of sex — not so much the doing of it as how we talk and think about it, and get effed up by it. Hitchcock always said he calibrated his scripts to the “icebox conversations” spectators would engage in over cold chicken at home. “The Escort,” beautifully staged at the Geffen, will propel heated chat out of the kitchen up to the bedroom, and into the shower the next morning.
Anderson takes us through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole of that which is erotically wantable and gettable in the hands of Charlotte (the dazzling Maggie Siff), a high-class call girl catering to the kinks of America’s power elite. She’s a seemingly well-adjusted, healthy working gal on a mission, ministering to clients as much with empowerment messages as with lubed dildos.
In search of a sympathetic gynecologist, Charlotte clicks with Dr. Rhona Bloom (Polly Draper, subtle and winning), remarkably nonjudgmental about her new patient’s calling and tentatively drawn to her joie de vivre, if not (at first) to her joie d’amour. The doctor, as it happens, needs professional advice herself, on the weird sex websites to which her 13-year-old son (Gabriel Sunday) seems irresistibly compelled.
But they say sex changes friendships, and does it ever as Charlotte guides the fortyish, divorced, lonely Rhona into a suite at the Hyatt and a paid tryst with the studly Mathew (Sunday again, in an astonishing doubling act). It only remains for Rhona’s urologist ex (an excellent James Eckhouse) to get pulled into Charlotte’s web for the play to slowly pull back everyone’s sheets and reveal their mess, like a giddy one-nighter turning into dread the morning after.
Yet “The Escort” is less about sexual hijinks than about sexual politics, and Anderson permits all points of view an equal hearing. Charlotte is one fox who’s fair and balanced, at least until she becomes a woman scorned, and Rhona’s ambivalence about society’s (and her own) obsession with pleasure causes her genuine anguish, charted in terms precisely located in character logic.
The result is a work of witty ambiguity that Rohmer or Truffaut would have been proud to place on his resume, though it’s doubtful either man — or few male or female artists at all, for that matter — would have dared to bring so much frankness and glee to this subject matter.
Lisa Peterson’s helming shrewdly plays off our prurience against our discomfort, from bits of business (a list of sex options offered, with a tassel, like a Pavillon menu) to the production’s silky, sensuous trappings: As panels rise on Richard Hoover’s set, beds and desks slide in and out like lingerie drawers against Rand Ryan’s red light wash, suitable to an Amsterdam side street.
Attention is most drawn to the amusing, anatomically correct body stockings worn at times of nudity, but all of Laura Bauer’s costumes are perfectly chosen to convey where each character falls on a 1-10 scale of erotic expressiveness.
And those who inhabit the clothes are bold and splendid across the board, though “The Escort” is one of those productions in which nervous, precoital chatter, or a mother and son’s arguments over homework, ring so truthful and dramatic you suddenly wonder whether it’s mainly the actors’, helmer’s or playwright’s doing. Of course, it’s everybody’s talents working in sync. Good shows are like good sex that way.
You needn’t fully share Charlotte’s epicurean view of sexuality to follow her advice about sitting back in the dark with a mind open to sensual possibility: “There’s nothing wrong with that. Go ahead. The theater is dark. No one will know.” Then when the lights come up, go home with your companion of choice, grab that drumstick from the fridge and start talking.