Bungled Breeding

Two different plays show various people failing--miserably--at human interaction

On successive nights last weekend, I watched male and female characters on stage at Arizona Theatre Company and Wilde Playhouse fail at absolutely everything except rudimentary rutting, and sometimes they weren't so adept at that. It's enough to make me give up hope in heterosexuality. We might as well all go gay, and let our misbegotten species die out within a generation.

Is anything possible between men and women? Little hope is held out either by the cartoonish marital farce For Better or Worse at ATC or the cynically serious comedy The Blue Room at Wilde.

The Blue Room is the stronger of the two scripts. It's David Hare's 1990s adaptation of Der Reigen, a 1900 play by Arthur Schnitzler, the Viennese writer whose sexually obsessed work also inspired the Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut. Der Reigen, known primarily through the 1950 Max Ophuls film La Ronde, is a daisy chain of sexual liaisons. In Hare's updated version, a prostitute has sex with a cab driver, who then has sex with an au pair, who has sex with the college-age son of her employers, who begins an affair with a married woman and so on, until we return in the end to the prostitute.

As we left the theater on opening night, a friend came up and asked me, "Wasn't the original play about people giving each other the clap?" Yes, indeed, among other things, and I had anticipated that Hare's version would replace VD with AIDS, but sexual hygiene hardly comes up in the course of Hare's 10 intimate acts. Director Michael Mandel is more interested in sexual power struggles, and the story itself has more to do with how, through sex, people grope for various things beyond sex--or sometimes do their best to avoid complicating lust with anything extraneous at all. "It's got to mean something," insists one woman. Her partner later responds, "It's worth doing for the cigarette alone."

Two actors portray the 10 characters; this suggests that all these horny urbanites are largely interchangeable, but it also shows how one person's character and motivation can change depending on his or her company. For this reason, it's not always clear that we're watching one character carry over to a second scene; sometimes, these figures seem like quite different people.

Matt Walley and Lisa Mae Roether hold the stage confidently as the 10 characters. True, not every figure is perfectly delineated from the others; Roether, for example, gets more out of her new, eager, somehow innocent young hooker than her middle-aged politician's wife. Walley does a good job of differentiating the nervous law student from the pretentious playwright and other characters, yet his roles also blur a bit through the evening, perhaps because Hare writes them as increasingly distant figures.

Hare has moved the action from Schnitzler's Vienna to his own London; the Wilde production places it in some unnamed "great city." Walley and Roether employ generic American accents, except for Roether's vaguely foreign au pair, and so some jarring Britishisms should have been eliminated from the script.

By the way, The Blue Room tends to get a lot of press for its varying degrees of nudity, depending on the production. At Wilde, the voyeuristic element has wisely been reduced. The actors do, provocatively, change costume in silhouette behind a curtain, but onstage, there's no genital nudity, and Roether offers only a couple of brief glimpses of her breasts. All the sex, by the way, takes place during blackouts, with the duration of each act amusingly reported in an overhead projection.

Walley and especially Roether do spend a lot of time lolling about in their underwear or very skimpy outfits. Yet for all the skin, The Blue Room ends up seeming a rather cold play.

If The Blue Room at Wilde aims to give us something to talk about, For Better or Worse at ATC, directed by David Ira Goldstein, hopes merely to give us something to laugh about. Geoff Hoyle stars in his own translation and adaptation of two one-act farces by Georges Feydeau, a contemporary of Schnitzler's. Feydeau was bitterly separated from his wife when he wrote these trifles, and, not coincidentally, the wife in the script, Julie (Sharon Lockwood), is an entirely disagreeable shrew from beginning to end.

The husband, Bastien (Hoyle), is only moderately more attractive as a human being. In the first act, he does his befuddled best to please the demanding Julie as she suffers through hours of labor pains. In the second act, which takes place several years later, he's clearly had enough of Julie, and with some justification has been reduced to perpetual, somewhat unkind exasperation as he tries to keep her from interfering with an important business deal. Bastien, a porcelain manufacturer, is trying to become the primary chamber-pot supplier to the French army. Inevitably, there's a bit of potty humor, particularly because one of the distractions is Julie's anguish over the mild constipation of their spoiled, screeching son (Roman Cratty-Lewis).

Hoyle is an extravagant physical actor, and that creates a problem in the first act. The Feydeau material, which culminates in characters being crowned with chamber pots, is as flimsy as American toilet tissue. (It can't even hold up to the comparatively intimidating French variety.) Hoyle tries to goose it up with his rubbery movement and facial expression, an incredibly graceful clown choreography that seems alien to everything around him--the lunacy is too localized. If Hoyle had eliminated almost all the dialog and done the piece in mime, it would surely have been far more successful.

Hoyle is more restrained in the better-written second act, and things fit together much more naturally, the chaos carefully set up element by element. Lockwood is a suitably annoying Julie, although she never suggests what Bastien might have seen in her in the first place. Amy Resnick is quite good as a country-bumpkin maid, and Jarion Monroe is equally adept (no mere straight man to Hoyle) as the government official Bastien is courting. Lynnda Ferguson does what she can in her two uninterestingly written roles, and Richard Trujillo gives a splendid cameo as a Latin lover.

Kent Dorsey's scenic design suits its purpose perfectly, providing a realistic setting for the purportedly zany antics. A nice touch: A print of Gericault's Raft of the Medusa hangs ominously over a door in the first act, but it and a few other paintings of romantic ruin are stripped away during intermission. With Bastien and Julie onstage, that's romantic ruin enough.

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