Commons Theatre

When a play uses sex and violence literally and metaphorically, passion is an operative emotion–the playwright, the director, the actors, somebody has to feel it to convince the audience. But in the Commons Theatre current production of Objections to Sex and Violence, passion is almost absent. In fact, the actors seem often to have confused it with volume; everybody in this production is amazingly loud, especially when they get emotional.

Caryl Churchill’s script concerns a would-be terrorist named Jule who is hiding out with her boyfriend, Eric–another radical of sorts. Indicted on minor drug charges, Jule and Eric are suspected of bigger crimes–including a possible bombing–most of which remain unspecified. Churchill contrasts these two with Arthur and Madge, a middle-class married couple. She’s a self-righteous civil servant, appalled by sexuality; he indulges in pornography. “I can’t always manage to dislike what I know is disgusting,” he says. Later he tries to force a bag lady of sorts to fondle him.

Objections is an earnest attempt at depth, but it ends up false; most of what works is due to the actors, who, with few exceptions, rise above the material. Set in England in the 70s, the story unfolds when global terrorism is just beginning. The horror of the Athens airport bombing is still to come. The Sex Pistols are nothing more than a murmur. Changing the world still seems like a reasonable possibility. Most of this information, however, is implied or comes from the program, not the script.

The play uses Jule as its epicenter, and for the story and its ending to work we must believe–deeply and certainly–that Jule believes. It’s imperative that she be committed–confused, perhaps, but committed to ideas and people, to feelings and possibilities. Instead Jule is committed to a technique: violence, preferably bombing. When her sister Annie’s lover, Phil, admits to jealousy about an affair Annie had, Jule suggests he send his rival a letter bomb. When Annie talks about her humiliation in the same affair, Jule suggests the man should be killed. Her answers are direct, violent, and remarkably bloodless.

This is one spoiled bitch: manipulations of people she loves bracket the play, which opens with Annie finding her at the beach and closes with her estranged husband, Terry, doing the same. Both find her because she gives them the same clue–scenic postcards with which Jule insidiously discloses her hiding place, though she manages to be coy and mildly surprised by both Annie and Terry’s detective work.

Many of Jule’s problems lie in the script, but Rebecca MacLean’s performance is so unsympathetic that by intermission we already hate Jule. That, clearly, was not Churchill’s intention. MacLean’s Jule pouts, flirts, taunts, and gets teary eyed. She comes off as such a brat that whatever her politics are, they’re irrelevant. She is impatient with other people’s feelings but neither sensitive nor outraged. MacLean, who spends most of her stage time in a bathing suit that slowly crawls up, might do well to show a little less ass and a little more heart.

Boyfriend Eric is similarly shallow, but the fault here is mostly in the script. He makes two appearances: in the first he is a lunatic revolutionary, spouting radical dogma at Arthur and Madge and feeling his superiority; in the second he’s a reluctant terrorist. This personality shift occurs in mere hours, and is plausible only because of actor Greg Bryant, who practically sweats guilt in Eric’s second scene.

Did they bomb anything or anyone? Would they have bombed if they’d had the chance? Who cares? The real questions are much more mundane: Will Eric leave or stay? Will Phil leave Annie? And once more, who cares?

Morgan McCabe, playing Annie, is excellent throughout; her rage and love are always simmering right below the surface in a wonderfully human confusion. Cameron Pfiffner as Phil is also terrific. Pfiffner gives Phil a complex desperation, especially when he confesses to Jule that her small flirtation with him years ago has haunted and obsessed him.

This is where Churchill’s sexual politics are most successful–Phil interprets everything Jule says to fit his desire, rationalizing until she finally spells out her rejection. Phil’s a swine here, but Pfiffner forces you to feel his pain. Again, MacLean (and director India Cooper) lets us down: we can’t sympathize with her, even though Churchill is asking us to, because she’s too flirtatious, too cruel.

By the time Terry shows up, we expect his encounter with Jule to be cathartic, to show us a caring aspect of this woman. But what we find is that Jule is willing to sleep with him–because he’s good in bed–but nothing more. We feel bad for Terry; we positively want to slap the hell out of Jule.