LEPERS: SCENES OF DESIRE AND IMPOTENCE
at Cafe Voltaire
Another Small Black Theatre Company With Good Things to Say and a Lot of Nerve Productions
at Cafe Voltaire
Twenty years after David Mamet gave us Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Neil Labute gives us a play that might as well be titled Sexual Perversity 1993, assuring us that pretty people are still gathering in Chicago bars and bedrooms to agonize about and (occasionally) engage in sex. Has the situation changed much since Mamet’s take on it in 1971? Well, Labute’s nameless characters are articulate in the extreme (except when they’re with their partners), read Camus and Naomi Wolf, hang out at galleries, and sip espresso–but we never have an inkling of what they think about Camus or The Beauty Myth or the art they’re perusing. We only know what they think of sex: they’re dissatisfied with it, fascinated by it, nattering on pretentiously about it, looking for it, doing it, trying to do it, or failing at it. Above all, communication between lovers is still a problem.
Couple number one in Lepers: Scenes of Desire and Impotence is married: he (Loren Lazerine) has a chronic problem with impotence, and she (Susan Murphy) is a fragile, frigid enigma who looks for warmth and sex from her girlfriend’s live-in lover (Mark Rector). The girlfriend in couple number two (Tucker Brown) finds solace in the arms of another woman (Ramona Curtis); rounding out the cast is a woman-hating, sexually obsessed, verging-on-sociopathic bachelor (Christopher Hayes) of the sort Mamet has made a trademark. In fact you can’t help but think of Mamet when the men gather to shoot pool, drink beer, and talk about the best fuck they ever had in language so studiously natural it becomes a style all its own. Or when two friends pause on the beach to “watch those ass cheeks glide on by until they’re nothing but two dots on the horizon.” Or when one of them rhapsodizes about the power he’s carrying around in his pants: “I’ve got a dick! Do you realize what that means in this society?”
Unlike Mamet, Labute pays attention to his women, whether they’re china dolls or ballsy career women–one insists that “Fucking is fucking. It’s not a time for sharing, I don’t care what anyone says.” Labute’s attempt to view sex through the eyes of three very different women is not always successful–the wife in the first couple remains a puzzle throughout–but it’s an interesting effort.
Though a veneer of sophistication about this production leads you to expect more from the script, once you accept that Lepers is about sex and little else there is much to enjoy about it. After all, I may say with critical disdain that it is “only” about sex, but then, who the hell isn’t interested? And the performances are stellar: Murphy’s picture-perfect wife hides a keen edge of panic behind her pretty smile; Brown has a warm, inviting, natural stage presence; and the sensitive Curtis brings to life Labute’s difficult and one-dimensional lesbian, who seems to be there only to raise the issue of homosexuality for Brown’s character. As the struggling husband Lazerine is both comic and sympathetic, and as the best friend who betrays him Rector turns in a smart, oily performance. Hayes is both chilling and pathetic as the misogynist who claims that the best fuck is a revenge fuck.
Recognizing the play for the actors’ piece it is, these six performers cast themselves and auditioned directors. They settled on James N. Schneider, who handles the material with understated elegance, surrounding his cast with erotic art (sculpture, photographs, and paintings) by Karl A. Fitzpatrick, Roy Alan Matula, Russ McGonagle, Madilyn Stein, and Laurence Kensey. I found myself wishing that the cast weren’t such perfect specimens (don’t the homely or the overweight ever have love affairs?), but they can’t be blamed for looking absolutely lovely with their clothes on or off. And the actors’ nudity often blends in with the surrounding artwork to make Lepers itself seem more a piece of surreal art than the gritty soap opera it might have become in less competent hands.
Lydia Gartin, lovely and long-limbed, has a way of making her awkwardness work for her. She fiddles with her dress, hooks her heels on the rungs of the stool she’s sitting on, tries to figure out a way to sniff one armpit without being obvious about it. The Inside, written by Gartin and directed by Ruth Carter, is essentially a one-woman show: an ensemble of four actors fill in mostly as voices and props while Gartin takes an intensely personal look at the lifetime of awkwardness, of not quite fitting in, experienced by Emma, a young, middle-class African American surrounded by knee-jerk liberals.
Trapped at a party, hiding from a man she’s attracted to, she sits with a group of white female artists who swap stories about oppression and wonders if this is what is meant by “white noise.” She fields questions about her hair (“It’s a relaxer. Yes, I wash it”) and about whether she thinks “calling a spade a spade” is a racist expression. She escapes to memories of her youth: her long talks with a God who resembled Malcolm X–“not Denzel Washington, really Malcolm X”–and how a white man at an ice cream stand acted as though she were invisible when he gave her an ice cream cone. “It wasn’t a bad trade,” she muses. “Invisibility for mint chocolate chip.” Invisible, excluded, Emma feels safe and unselfconscious. At this party she’s the only black woman once again, but though she’s spent a lifetime in similar positions, it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier.
Gartin’s hour-long comment from the other side of the politically correct fence is wry and humorous, smart but not stinging–partly because her delivery is so charming, and partly because while she exposes the liberal poseurs she also takes herself to task for going along, attempting to fit in by giving them what they expect. “In an ideal world,” Emma sighs, “a soul would not long for that which makes it stupid.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Russ McGonagle.