Profiles Performance Ensemble

at Red Bones Theatre

Jules Feiffer’s plays expose the internal contradictions of marriage that point to its inevitable collapse. His thesis is simple: an institution that demands monogamy leads either to boredom or to betrayal, both of which are fatal to romance. And if two people somehow manage to keep the spark in their marriage while remaining faithful to each other, chances are the intimacy will stir up long- dormant neurotic conflicts from childhood–conflicts destined to poison the relationship.

In Grown Ups, which the National Jewish Theater staged four years ago, Feiffer depicts a marriage that has entered the terminal stage. Though the husband and wife are intelligent, decent, well-intentioned people who apparently have remained faithful to each other, their insecurities have left their nerve endings raw. The most innocuous comment–about their daughter, for example–ignites a firestorm of bitter accusations and denials.

In Carnal Knowledge, Feiffer shows two men, a jerk and a sweet guy, who both fail miserably at marriage. The implication is obvious–the problem is marriage itself, not the people who enter into it.

In 1971 Carnal Knowledge was turned into a film directed by Mike Nichols and starring Jack Nicholson as Jonathon, the compulsive womanizer who looks at women as mere collections of erotic body parts. (“Good pair of tits on her,” he tells his good friend Sandy, played by Art Garfunkel. “Not a great pair. Almost no ass at all and that bothered me. Sensational legs. I would have settled for the legs if she had just had two more inches here and three more here.”)

Nicholson’s performance was so outrageous that many people tend to remember the film as a comedy, and since Feiffer pulled the rights to the play for 20 years after the film was released, no one could challenge this perception. But as the fine revival by the Profiles Performance Ensemble demonstrates, the play is built on a solid foundation of pain.

The play is certainly funny at times. Feiffer has a good eye for the perversity of sexual desire. For example, the play opens with Jonathon and Sandy at a college dance in 1946. Jonathon complains that he never falls in love because “the girl does something that turns me cold.”

“You were in love with Gloria,” Sandy reminds him.

“I started to be in love,” Jonathon admits. “And then she let me feel her up on the first date. It turned me right off.”

“You kept going with her,” Sandy says.

“Well, she let me feel her up,” Jonathon responds, oblivious to the irony.

The two men take opposite approaches to women. Sandy forms a deep attachment to the first woman he sleeps with, and gets married soon after graduation. Jonathon continues to pursue well-proportioned women. But after a few years both are miserable. Sandy, despite his marriage to an ideal partner, is bored. “Susan and I do all the right things,” he says. “We spend 15 minutes on foreplay. We experiment. We do it in different rooms. It’s a seven-room house. . . . And you know what? She’s as crazy as I am. Just as bored.” Meanwhile, Jonathon’s enthusiasm for life seems to wane with his virility.

Though both characters have equal status in the script, Nicholson made the film revolve around Jonathon. The same thing happens in the Profiles production. Darrell Christopher is so compelling as Jonathon that he dominates the action. Scott Sandoe endows Sandy, the essential counterpoint, with just the right amount of shyness and sensitivity. But Jonathon is so repellent and Christopher captures his self-absorbed cruelty so vividly that it’s hard to take your eyes off him.

I interviewed Feiffer a few years ago and discovered, to my amazement, that he’s happily married. But the woman he’s married to is his third wife, and he admitted that sustaining an intimate relationship is one of the most difficult challenges that humans face. “Even when you’re living with someone of vast good will, who has similar tastes, who really likes you–even that can be fraught with difficulties,” he said.

In Carnal Knowledge Christopher transforms Jonathon from a cocky college boy to a weary middle-aged lecher, suggesting that romance is just a brutal war of attrition–an idea that Feiffer has returned to again and again in his plays.

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