Sexual Healing

'That Slut!' examines the power of emotional and physical love in our lives.

Let's hope Hollywood never wraps its celluloid tentacles around Toni Press-Coffman's comedy That Slut! Cast with celebrities instead of actors, insensitively directed and varnished with a sappy score, the film would inevitably be an artistic failure.

Yet as a play, specifically the play now at the Temple of Music and Art Cabaret Theatre graced by a delightful cast and sensitive, yet light-handed direction, That Slut! is superb, heartfelt entertainment.

Why raise the specter of Hollywood? Because this is the most commercial Toni Press-Coffman play I know. It's commercial by this playwright's standards, anyway; compared to something really commercial, like Neil Simon, That Slut! is George Bernard Shaw. Its rampant humor arises from character and inflection, not jokey lines, and it dares to feature three attractive, sexually active female characters who are older than 30 (the lead character, in fact, is 55). Not your typical commercial fare. But, aside from the way it toys with chronology, That Slut! is a surprisingly mainstream work from a playwright with a determinedly artsy portfolio.

Reviewing Press-Coffman's one-acts Virginia Street and The Good Old Days for another publication in 1997, I described her work as "concise to the point of abbreviation." That's a possibility in any one-act play, but Press-Coffman took naturally to an aphoristic way of devising scenes and delineating character. Paradoxically, she has also been fond of long monologues, the most notable example of which is the extended solo that launches her widely produced drama Touch. Furthermore, in the past, she's indulged in language that's poetic on the page but more stilted on the stage, especially given her pathological aversion to contractions.

That's the kind of play That Slut! initially seems to be. After an "overture" interweaving the lovemaking sessions of three separate couples, the first thing we hear is Lillian Sparks, the middle-aged mayor of an unnamed Midwestern city, speaking into her cell phone, studiously avoiding contractions.

But it turns out that Lillian is simply that sort of syntactically uptight person; the other characters can handle "that's" and "it's" just fine. We also soon see that Lillian is not the cardboard figure she seems from those lines, but a vibrant, complicated, real human being. The script has a lot to do with this, but so--especially--does actress Carlisle Ellis, who could make the sell-by date on a milk carton sound like a masterpiece of ironic wit.

Luckily, Ellis has far better material to work with. Lillian, a former actress once able to enjoy a casual approach to love and sex, now as mayor is trying to keep out of a Mapplethorpe-like controversy at the local art museum, and she finds her private life under scrutiny by her political opponents and the press. This is an inopportune time to be tailed by paparazzi, for Lillian has just been swept away by Jose, a Spaniard 30 years her junior (played by the endearing Javier Galitó-Cava; imagine the personality of Antonio Banderas transplanted into the body of a boyish ballet dancer).

Lillian's younger brother, Ray, has romantic problems of his own. Played by Terry Erbe, who does a delicate job of balancing the character's gruffness and poetic aspirations, Ray lusts after Lillian's sexy best friend, a married lit professor named Anabelle (the wry and steady Julia Matias). But at the same time, he's falling in love with an outwardly tough but inwardly insecure actress named Jennifer (Carrie Hill, wonderful at delineating the brittle shell around a shapely mound of mush). Jennifer, meanwhile, is involved with Glenn, a vain, defiantly superficial, married actor (Benjamin Fritz, who finds in this appealing jerk his best local performance to date).

The basic tension here is that most of the characters would like to be swept away by passion, but fear letting themselves go. Lust is good, but love is dangerous. Love, as these people understand, gets in the way of sex, complicates it. And love makes you cede power to the beloved. Use precaution; love can be a sexually transmitted disease.

The production's press release states, "A response to the atmosphere of moral proscription that is currently rampant in our society, the play humorously explores the various and surprising parts love and sex play in our lives." That pretty much says it, without getting into the various plot twists, and without giving an adequate idea of how funny this play really is. I don't suppose the lines would look particularly humorous on paper; the comedy arises from how these characters interact with each other and slowly come to understand themselves. Most of it hinges on delivery, and this cast and director get just about everything exactly right. Director Glen Coffman, the author's husband, more often than not anchors characters to some spot and concentrates on the fine details of stance, facial expression and vocal inflection. As a result, we immediately feel comfortable with these people, because they're exactly like screwed-up friends we already have. (They're also similar to various local theater figures past and present, from whom Press-Coffman has borrowed isolated biographical details.)

Any little problems with this play and its production are easy to overlook. Yes, the script's very last beat seems a bit weak; Galitó-Cava's accent can sometimes be a bit too strong; and Matias and Fritz are so much fun to watch that their characters seem unduly subsidiary. But none of this can detract from the fact that Toni Press-Coffman and company have delivered an entertainment both lusty and loving. Not only is it a great one-night stand, but we can respect it in the morning.

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