Frank Melcori

at Cafe Voltaire, through March 28

There’s a moment during Sex Life 2000, Frank Melcori’s new show at Cafe Voltaire, when he’s describing his new house and says–offhandedly, almost as a throwaway–“For those of you who know me.” While it may seem casual, it’s the key to the performance: most of us in the audience don’t know Melcori. Yet here, in the cafe’s dank basement performance space, we’re led to believe we might know him, or at least should.

For all its simplistic and casual trappings–Melcori sits in a chair, talks, and plays the trumpet between bits–Sex Life 2000 is an extremely versatile and controlled performance. It may sound informal and improvised, but Melcori’s not making anything up as he goes along. Not a word or gesture is wasted.

At its most basic, what Melcori does is tell a story about having sex with a prostitute. He’s remarkably frank about his motives–he was lonely, he wanted a woman. He imparts this without the slightest trace of moral ambiguity, remorse, shame, or judgment.

Yet something’s amiss here. Just minutes before telling us this, Melcori explains his sexual background. “I learned about sex from the movies. I was a sexual primate, imitating John Wayne and Marlon Brando.”

Because this information is delivered in the past tense, we might believe this primitivism is a thing of the past. But Melcori then relates a story in which the futuristic title of the show is inverted by a most private and essential pathos. What he feels, both in its glory and its banality, has been part and parcel of human existence since time began.

If Melcori wants us to believe he’s no longer animalistic about sex, he doesn’t persuade us he’s in a better place. He doesn’t even try. What he does say is that his technique may be better. He may have a better understanding of how he works at an emotional level around sexual issues, but, he asks, what does any of it mean? And what does it really matter in the end? Does it eliminate the pain or loneliness? The answer, emphatically, is no.

There are funny moments in Sex Life 2000, and Melcori keeps a sense of warmth and vulnerability flowing throughout. But there’s also a terrible darkness to the piece. And we have an uneasy feeling we’re being manipulated.

When we first hear about Karen, the prostitute, Melcori is preparing for what seems like an ordinary date. He’s making dinner. She rings the doorbell. He takes her coat. She comments on his begonias. Only after this little chat does she explain to him–and do we become aware of–the payment arrangements. It’s then and there that we know that in a weird sort of way we’re buying into the prostitution as much as Melcori. Our continued presence in the room repeats the expectations of the story: somebody’s selling balm for the soul, however temporary, and somebody’s buying.

Curiously, Sex Life 2000 isn’t an indictment. Melcori isn’t baring his scars for the sake of shaming us into doing the same. Rather he’s shrugging his shoulders, telling us how he struggles to accommodate these mundane hurts, this everyday emptiness. He’s saying he finds his Zen where he can. The questions he poses to us are: How do we do it? Do we ever really think about it?

This is not a politically correct or happy show by any means, yet it makes a deep human connection. This is a man wanting to do the right thing, who takes responsibility for his own life, whatever its conflicts and compromises. It isn’t always a pretty picture. But the stark honesty is refreshing.

Of course by the end of the show the number of those in the audience who know Melcori has increased dramatically. Certainly, this is a literal truth. Yet it has its metaphorical value as well: there are a lot of Melcoris. And for some of us, he’s the face in the mirror.

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