A Healthy Blast of Filth
The sexual perversity showcased in Sexual Perversity in Chicago is neither very Chicagoan nor very perverse. That is, if you judge perversity by things done rather than things thought about. But like most people in Chicago and elsewhere, Deborah, Danny, Joan, and Bernie — the denizens of this David Mamet joint — think about sex a lot more than they have it, and the less they have it, the weirder their thoughts about it become.
This may not have been Mamet's original point in writing SPC in the early '70s, but that's the play's most obvious message during its run at The Alliance Theatre Lab. SPC's first, ludicrously entertaining scene has Danny and Bernie (David Sirois and Travis Reiff, respectively), seemingly all jacked up on something or other, hashing over Bernie's sexual encounter of the night before. He's in a bar and this knockout is trying to buy cigarettes, only she forgot her money in her hotel room. So Bernie does the decent thing and offers to spot her, after which she invites him to the room for payback. They somehow wind up in the shower, and Bernie's soon doing her in the legless-doggy position on the bed. She instructs him to yell "BOOM!" every 30 seconds or so and calls in a friend to provide military sound effects — machine guns, dive-bombing planes, the whine of incoming artillery. When she lights the room on fire with a tub of gasoline — intentionally, to intensify climax — Bernie makes a run for it and bumps into the fire department in the elevator.
There is a pause after Bernie finishes his story, during which he stands there, panting, wild-eyed and scared, as we and Danny reflect on the deeper implications of all he's said. Then Danny says with a sigh: "Nobody does it normally any more."
Bernie's story was bullshit, of course, as is nine-tenths of everything that comes out of his mouth. We learn this by and by, and in a more staid production we may ponder what deep traumas in Bernie's youth have rendered him incapable of telling the truth, or of having good, sane sex in adulthood. (Or even good, sane conversations.) But I think director Adalberto Acevedo was having too much fun to worry about such somber things, and this version of SPC provides no time or space for them. This production is about antics and four actors' transcendent ability to get wild and dirty and crazy onstage.
SPC's story is skeletal, just a lift-off point for the sex rants Mamet puts in his characters' mouths. Basically, Danny and Deborah (Bertha Leal), two lost young Chicagoans, manage to overcome their sexual hangups long enough to initiate a relationship, but not long enough to really fall for each other before their union crumbles. Bernie and Joan are less nimble, their hangups more well-hung, and they resent the couple's successful acquisition of sex partners and mates. Joan (Jehane Serralles) spends the play saying terrible things about Danny, whom she hardly knows, and Bernie spends much of the play trying to hide his resentment and support his buddy, but ultimately can summon nothing so much as passive aggression.
Forget the story, though. The deep pleasures of this SPC — and there are many — come from individual moments of dramatic ingenuity that have nothing to do with Mamet's vision or anything else. Consider Jehane Serralles' amazing acid tongue, so potent it might burn holes through her lovely cheeks before the run is over. When at one point Danny — rightly — suggests she jam a lamp up her ass, she cools down and sucks the heat out of the room with a subtle movement of her head. "That's very telling," she says, with a slow-spreading crocodile smile, in a voice as managed as a controlled demolition. "On your suggestion, I'm supposed to rend and torture myself anally." In this moment, her character looks more comfortable than in any previous scene, as though she's settling into a role for which she's long prepared and "truly" relishes: a front-line combatant in a gender war.
Another pleasure: Travis Reiff's fantastic over-the-top misogyny and sexual angst. They make him difficult to share a room with but delirious fun to watch. Witness his breakdown as his Bernie tries to congratulate Danny on his new romantic venture. By the time Bernie forces himself to say, "You are one fortunate son of a bitch," he's so upset that he might as well be saying, "I've just discovered my family dead in the basement." The disconnect between the words and the quavering, loathing-filled mouth that says them is scary and mesmerizing.
But the greatest pleasure, and the best bit of acting, in Acevedo's SPC comes during Danny and Deborah's courtship, in a scene on a bed in Danny's apartment, as they talk to each other in cutesy little-kid voices and Deborah squirms around on Danny's lap. I couldn't tell what they were saying — the audience was laughing too hard at whatever it was — but watching their faces was enough. I don't know if I've ever seen two actors better capture the euphoria of fresh infatuation as it really is. The infinitely knowing smiles of fresh cohabitants, luxuriating neither in each others' words nor even their real personalities, but simply their presence; the presence of this new person who, for inexplicable reasons, has deigned to open their thighs and heart. You see all of this on their faces, and on Deborah's especially. They are thinking and feeling their parts, moment by moment. It's a revelation.
Again, none of this has anything to do with Mamet's vision, or the revelation about love and lust he was attempting to communicate during his own sexually perverse youth. In a softer, less antics-crammed production, we might pause to wonder what it means when Danny complains of his home life with Deborah: "Everything's fine. Sex, talk, life, everything...until you want to get closer, to get 'better.' Do you know what the fuck you want?" In other productions, that line comes across as the war cry of an eternal adolescent in chains. Here, it's all but swallowed. There are no fireworks in it, and it provides no opportunities for artful mugging. So the show goes on.
Acevedo and his actors lack the kind of hangups that severely restricted Mamet's characters. Their philosophy of playmaking is more libertine — more "if it feels good, do it." It's a philosophy that many have mouthed, but few have ever lived up to. Certainly, it's one that has never sufficed for Mamet or his creations. I say fuck 'em. SPC feels great.
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