Emotional Devastation

LTW's 'Sweet Eros' proves to be disturbing and disquieting

There's hardly a more disturbing opening scene in American theater: A man enters carrying a woman; she is bound, kicking and screaming, a red pillowcase over her head. He renders her unconscious and ties her to a chair. Then he reaches for a knife.

Only two words are spoken in this scene, but the rest of the play is a torrent of words, an hour-long monologue as the man declares his intentions to his captive, explains himself, waxes philosophical and sociological. His idea of pillow talk is expounding on geopolitics and mass violence while raping the woman.

Most horrifying of all, there are moments when we in the audience can not only understand why the man is doing this, but we almost begin to allow him to manipulate us into sympathizing with him.

The play is Terrence McNally's one-act Sweet Eros, a 1968 succès de scandale for the young playwright who would later achieve mainstream acclaim for such plays as Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune; Lips Together, Teeth Apart; A Perfect Ganesh; and Master Class. Many of McNally's works have taken up gay themes, including the Jesus parable Corpus Christi, which Live Theatre Workshop gave a sincere and moving production in 2005. LTW is now mounting Sweet Eros in its late-night series, and the production, tautly directed by Danielle Dryer, is every bit as compelling and disquieting as it ought to be.

The young man--McNally gives him no name--has kidnapped the young woman, choosing her almost at random, because he's been unlucky in love and wants to start a relationship from scratch. Well, it's more complicated than that; actually, love itself has been the problem. His first lover couldn't handle his perhaps excessive devotion; bitterly, he left her, whereupon she had a mental breakdown. His second lover loved him too much; although he was pleased to use her sexually, he found her cloying and oppressive and sent her away, whereupon she committed suicide.

The young man's conclusion: People don't like to be loved. So he chooses a new woman to be his companion, with no emotional strings attached. He kidnaps her and carries her away to his country home, where he keeps her for days. He rapes her. He literally studies her every blemish under a magnifying glass. He writes poetry inspired by her, which he declares to be a masterpiece, even though it's only two lines. (The third he rejects as inaccurate.) He tests her pain threshold. And, constantly, he talks.

Christopher Johnson undertakes the logorrheic role, to which he is chillingly suited as an actor (though not necessarily, I hasten to add, as a human being). "I'm a good person," Johnson tells the young man's victim smugly, as if he truly believes this and thinks it should be obvious--he's not begging for understanding. But then, within a minute, he's fixing her with a frigid stare that makes you wonder if he's even a person, let alone a good one.

Johnson has spent the past year working with Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre in Alaska, and he's returned as a slightly changed and even more mature actor. Not only does he have a more focused projection, but he more carefully modulates the emotions within a single sentence, from phrase to phrase, like actors who specialize in classical and pseudo-classical roles (think of Richard Burton's alternately tender and barking death speech in Cleopatra).

The young woman is played by newcomer Miranda McBride, who is required to deliver very few lines, but must evolve from a writhing, crying, inward-centered victim to an angry, watchful but mostly powerless individual who is increasingly well-attuned to her antagonist. Except for two words late in the play, aimed with calculated ambiguity, her main vocal work is singing a little song the young man has imposed on her: J.P. Martini's "Plaisir d'amour" (the French original, not the Elvis remake). It's something of an anthem for the young man; the one verse she sings, over and over, translates as, "The joys of love are but a moment long; the pain of love endures the whole life long."

McBride must spend much of the play naked, the requirement that earned Sweet Eros its notoriety 40 years ago. Yet that's not the greatest act of bravery onstage; McBride and Johnson are also stripped bare emotionally, and Johnson in particular must draw on his darkest personal resources. Frankly, this might be a more interesting play if it had a second act in which the young woman begins to speak, and tries to manipulate her way out of her horror, but perhaps it's just as well that things end where they do. Just how much emotional devastation can any of us endure?