Organic Theater Company Greenhouse

Sometime in 1940, bohemian diarist Anais Nin, living in genteel poverty in New York City, turned to writing erotica to earn some extra money. Paid a dollar a page for her work, Nin discovered the task to be far from the onerous “castrating occupation” her friend Henry Miller had found it to be. While Miller complained to Nin that “writing with a voyeur at the keyhole took all the spontaneity and pleasure out of his [work],” Nin found in erotica a kind of liberation, a way to explore “the mysteries of woman’s sensibility, so different from man’s and for which man’s language was inadequate.”

In a 1976 preface to one of her collections of erotica, Nin recounts, “I realized that for centuries we had had only one model for this literary genre–the writing of men. I was already conscious of a difference between the masculine and feminine treatment of sexual experience. I knew that there was a great disparity between Henry Miller’s explicitness and my ambiguities–between his humorous, Rabelaisian view of sex and my poetic descriptions of sexual relationships.”

Just how inspired Nin was by the challenge of writing as a woman in a genre so long dominated by men is apparent in the beautiful, sensual stories collected in Delta of Venus and Little Birds. The stories are sexy without falling into the sort of obsessive moment-by-moment description of the sex act that turns erotica into soporific porn. Nin, with her love for interesting, quirky people, turned her erotic stories into intricately detailed character studies, making them stand out in a genre filled with faceless couples and social stereotypes.

It is this gift that makes Nin’s stories seem naturally suited to stage adaptation. After all, what actor wouldn’t want to bring to life such characters as the shame-bound yet sexually attractive Lina, or the beautiful but unlucky-in-love model, Hilda, or even the ever-present, ever-curious narrator herself? And what audience familiar with Nin’s writing would turn down a chance to see her sexy, poetic stories acted out on the stage?

Just the same, there are ten million ways to screw up a good story in the process of bringing it to the stage. Happily, the Organic Theater Company’s excellent production of Little Birds (conceived and directed by Karen Goodman) avoids nearly all of them. Goodman, who adapted Delta of Venus for the Prop Theatre last year, seems absolutely at home in Nin’s world. She never shies away from Nin’s eroticism, and her incredibly uninhibited actors (most notably Meg Guttman, Patrick Towne, and Josette Di Carlo) exhibit none of the inhibitions about physical contact on stage that have sunk such productions as Cloud 42’s 360 Degrees and Bailiwick Repertory’s Mademoiselle Julie.

As a result, Goodman’s Little Birds contains some of the steamiest sex scenes I’ve seen on stage in a long time. In fact, Little Birds is far sexier than Philip Kaufman’s recent film based on Nin’s writings, Henry & June, even though Henry & June contains far more nudity.

Goodman, like Nin, never allows the erotic element to warp her story telling. In each of the seven vignettes Goodman has lifted from Little Birds (which contains 13 stories in all), Goodman provides her terrific cast with plenty of time to develop Nin’s wonderful characters. When Josette Di Carlo plays the sexually repressed Lina, for example, she is given time and space enough to reveal all that is original and fascinating about her character.

Goodman’s skill as a director is most clear in the final story of the evening, “Little Birds,” about a pedophiliac painter who uses his collection of caged birds to befriend a pair of schoolgirls he lusts after. In lesser hands, such a story might be too perverse to be fully appreciated. But Goodman allows the gifted Patrick Towne plenty of room to develop both the attractive and unattractive sides of the painter, both his whimsical playfulness and his sexual perversity, without violating Nin’s spirit by forcing the audience into a moral judgment. Ultimately this suspension of judgment allows us to come to a fuller understanding of the predicament of this isolated and pathetic creature.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.