Snoozing Through Sex

Smut is either the least sexy show about sex in the history of theater, or theater's most subversive pro-abstinence statement. These things are always fifty-fifty, and Joseph Adler is usually at his best when he's courting ambiguity.

Intentionally, I mean. Neither Adler nor anybody else is at his or her best in Smut, and within the first ten minutes of the show, GableStagers are likely to develop a horrifying suspicion that, Christ Almighty, Joe Adler is saying exactly what he means. He co-wrote and directed this thing, and it is very much a Play With A Message. Viewers don't have to think about it either: The very first scene lays it all out, in the form of a brief dialectic between nineteenth-century sex educator Ida Craddock and freakishly puritanical U.S. postal inspector Anthony Comstock. She was, we learn, a forward-thinking proto-feminist who wrote books about the glory of the clitoris; he was a Jesus-mad crusader who burned copies of Middlemarch. In their opening scene, both characters explain their sexual philosophies while addressing the audience directly -- as will all of Smut's characters, over and over again, killing the play's dramatic momentum before it even has a chance to develop.

Is sex an appropriate subject for public discussion? Are such discussions always obscene? Do people need protection from their own animalistic urges? Does porn corrupt minds? Should abortions be safe, cheap, and legal? These are the weighty issues GableStage is tackling, and it's kind of difficult to care, for most of us have settled these questions long before we set foot in the Biltmore. And it's not as if we're being confronted with a modern-day sexual libertine squaring off against our own hallowed cultural canards: Comstock, preaching a morality that was already obsolete when he shoved it down our throats a hundred years ago, is a straw man of such philosophic flimsiness it's impossible to draw parallels between him and modern-day trogs like Ralph Reed and Rev. James Kennedy, as Adler surely intended. Hearing Comstock bluster on about "decency" and "decency" and "decency" ad nauseam, we can't get a feel for him as a thinking, feeling, working man, or accept his opinions as real, considered stances.

This is a shame, because it reflects and plays to a very real prejudice possessed by many self-satisfied liberals, significant numbers of whom go to the theater. We like to think about social conservatives as stone-dumb. We like to think they receive their opinions whole and prefab from some demagogic authority, and we like to think they can neither defend nor even understand the rhetoric they spew. This is exactly how Smut paints Comstock. For 90 minutes he subtly terrorizes his wife, his wife's doctor, his wife's housekeeper, and Craddock herself with his utterly brainless beliefs and behaviors. He never musters a cogent argument, because the writers of this play don't think he ever had one. He is a man of such cosmic ridiculousness that we can justify his actions only by thinking, Gosh, Anthony Comstock must have been an idiot.

Which he wasn't, really. He was dead wrong on the sex question, but he was no fool. Craddock, on the other hand, really was a bit daft. She was a theosophist, one of Annie Besant's anti-science thugs, and she regularly claimed carnal knowledge of angels. This goes unmentioned in the play. In Smut, Craddock is the standard-bearer of logic and reason, and Comstock is the avatar of flimflam.

History is seldom so simple, and people never are. So consumed were writers Alice Jay and Joe Adler with promulgating their message that they forgot how real people are inevitably weird mixtures of smart and dumb, reasonable and foolish, good and bad, black and white. If they had remembered those things, they would have had to allow some uncertainty in their world of moral absolutes; they would have had to let go of the audience's hands and let them negotiate the drama on their own. As it happened, Smut comes off as deeply mistrustful of its audience's abilities in that regard, so much so that the uncertainties of drama -- of real people struggling with real choices -- have been almost entirely replaced with one-sided polemic. What little story we get -- poor little Irish housekeeper, badly used by a cop and lost to prostitution after Big Bad Comstock finds out she had an abortion; poor Craddock, persecuted for helping women get their groove on; poor Mrs. Comstock, denied visits to her vibrator-wielding doctor -- is woefully undeveloped. In a moral war, Jay and Adler know, the infantry is expendable.

It's a philosophy that likely works wonders for the rhetoricians of the world, but it's death to actors. A fine bunch of artists is wasted here: Talents on the order of Sandra Ives, Dan Leonard, and Scott Genn are trained to portray people, not devices in a rigged forensics competition. Trying to breathe life into this script is like performing CPR on a statue.

The actors have no room to stretch their limbs, get comfy, and search for humanity in their roles. Their brief moments of interaction with one another feel like they were added as a concession to the audience -- even moments that beg for explosive dramatic release: For instance, when Kim Morgan's Irish housekeeper explains to Genn's horny, misogynistic cop that, no, sorry, she doesn't want to become a housewife just yet, there is a curious lifelessness to the proceedings. We knew this scene would unfold in precisely this way, because the encounter is the playing out of forces we have already quantified, and which the authors have handled with such self-satisfied certainty, there can be no room for surprise. It's a certainty that makes sex incredibly unsexy -- the following of a manual, a political maneuver, anything but an explosion of lust. And even as a political maneuver, the sex under discussion feels tired and used: Give the audience something it doesn't agree with so readily, and such bold-faced, dry explications might work magic. Adler and Jay could have gone out on a limb and defended polyamory, pederasty, or incest. Instead they defend George Eliot and a woman's right to orgasm. It's a sentiment we can agree with, but it sure won't make us wet.

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Brandon K. Thorp