360 DEGREES: A PLAY FOR LOVERS IN THE AGE OF GLOBAL WARMING
at Puszh Studio
When Arthur Schnitzler’s play Reigen (“Round Dance”)–best known as La ronde, Max Ophuls’s 1950 film adaptation–was first performed in Vienna in the late teens (after having been suppressed by the author for nearly two decades) it provoked terrible outrage. According to Schnitzlerian scholar Egon Schwarz, “The theater was stormed, stink-bombs were thrown, benches destroyed, spectators and actors assaulted.” Austrian politicians even debated the play’s morality in parliament. When Schnitzler’s play confronting the sexual hypocrisy of fin de siecle Vienna opened in Berlin, public reaction was not much different. Again there were demonstrations and riots. However, the courts investigated the work, and not only pronounced it morally sound but added that its production was “in the best public interest.”
Jerome Stauduhar’s “updated” adaptation performed by Cloud 42, 360 Degrees: A Play for Lovers in the Age of Global Warming, will provoke no public outcry, although it should. Not for being immoral–it isn’t (unless you think all bad art is immoral)–but for being silly and superficial. Stauduhar’s initial concept sounds good: an equivalent American assault on hypocritical sexual mores. Unfortunately, 360 Degrees is not that play.
Stauduhar simply replaces the characters in the original play with American versions of the same people–Schnitzler’s Prussian soldier becomes a cop, his poet becomes a screenwriter, his count becomes a senator–and sets them up in similar scenes. Thus, instead of a scene between a soldier and a whore in which the soldier and the whore end up making love, Stauduhar gives us a scene between a cop and a whore in which the cop and the whore end up making love. That isn’t much of an adaptation, really, especially when you consider how much attitudes about sex have changed over the past 90 years.
Simple substitutions don’t do the trick because contemporary Americans aren’t conflicted about sex in the same way that fin de siecle Viennese were. The Viennese carried around with them two absolutely contradictory attitudes about sexuality. Like all good Victorians, they sternly repressed all discussion, public displays, and thoughts of sex, while carrying around a nice healthy obsession with it. Which is why Schnitzler was able to provoke such violent reactions to a play that states simply, in ten cleverly written scenes, the obvious: not all sexual relations occur within the strict boundaries of marriage. Sometimes soldiers visit prostitutes. Sometimes married women have sex with men they are not married to. Sometimes actresses have affairs with prominent public officials. The fact that Schnitzler arranged these trysting scenes like a round dance, with characters switching partners every scene, only underscores what now seems a given: everyone has sexual feelings, and most everyone has sex or would like to.
We don’t mind talking about sex. Our anxieties about sex spring from our culture’s pathetic narcissism. We don’t worry about whether sex is right or wrong. We worry: Will anyone be attracted to me? Dare I open up to this person? Will I catch AIDS? Am I making love to the right person? Did I perform well? Would I be happier with someone else? These worries relate more to fears of intimacy and issues of self-esteem than to whether or not we are heeding the call of the libido.
So a play in which the point of each and every scene is not whether but how and when the two characters will end up coupling inspires not outrage but ennui. It doesn’t help that each and every scene in 360 Degrees follows the same pattern–two characters meet, experience some impediment to having sex (shyness, momentary impotence, the need to prolong the scene), overcome the impediment, have sex (during a convenient blackout), and then talk (or argue) afterward. Once you figure out this pattern there is not much else to do except count the scenes left in the show. It doesn’t help that Stauduhar has filled his play with easy-as-TV stereotypes (the unscrupulous cop, the Evian-drinking yuppie doctor, the AC/DC evangelist, the gold-hearted whore) who say only the most commonplace things and who very rarely do anything surprising.
To make matters worse, Patrick Trettenero’s direction only accentuates the limitations of Stauduhar’s shallow characters. With a few exceptions, most of the 11-member cast are content to take the easy way out and play their stereotypes straight. Marysia Filipkowski gets a B+ for the wonderful Polish accent of her otherwise colorless nanny character (“I came for the feelm I am going to drop off the Walgreens”). Likewise Kathy Scambiatterra, who works so hard to make her character (the neurotic movie star) interesting it’s exhausting. (Acting shouldn’t be this hard!)
However, only Ric Kraus and Laurie Martinez manage to turn in performances worth seeing a second time. Their scene, in which a smug ballplayer and a brainy but bitter screenwriter smash heads before falling into bed together, is the only one in the whole play that generates any real sexual tension. You really do wonder whether this pair of egotists will ever get together. Too bad that thanks to Schnitzler’s merry-go-round story they have just one scene together.
You’d think that a play as upfront about sex as this one would be a little sexy. But not so. The cast are for the most part prudish, restrained, and unsexy. They kiss as if the surgeon general recently announced that each kiss takes a day off your life. And they treat seduction as an awkward thing couples do to pass the time before they fall insincerely into bed. There are even a couple scenes that the author clearly meant to be played nude, but the actress in both of them has apparently refused to perform naked. She wears a shift throughout one scene and even, it’s implied, makes love with her panties on. What makes this especially odd is that her partner clearly has no similar qualms about performing naked, and does so. Which makes the fact that she is clothed all the stranger, especially after she sends him to answer the phone because she’s supposedly not wearing any clothes.
Which brings me to the play’s unattractive subtext. The fear of AIDS hangs over this play. No one addresses the topic directly, nor do Stauduhar and Trettenero seem aware of how deeply this anxiety has penetrated the play, but it’s clearly on the actors’ minds, if not in their characters’ heads. Stauduhar and Trettenero think they have addressed the subject of safe sex by inserting a running gag about a box of condoms that gets passed from couple to couple. (See, even though everyone had sex with everyone else, everyone is safe ’cause they used condoms, OK?) However, even this joke has a dark side, since the box of condoms could be interpreted as a metaphor for the spread of the virus itself. Which means that by the end of the play, everyone in the show has been infected, thus subverting completely the apparent message of both Schnitzler’s original play and Stauduhar’s updated version: Sex isn’t good, this version seems to say. Sex is dangerous and shameful and scary. An opinion, ironically enough, shared by the Viennese Schnitzler was reacting against. 360 Degrees isn’t really “a play for lovers in the age of global warming,” it’s a play for lovers in the new ice age.