Profiles Performance Ensemble

at Red Bones Theater

The final image in Profiles Performance Ensemble’s production of David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago is stunning in its depiction of the kind of emotional destruction perpetrated in our misogynist culture. Bernie and Danny (Jason Wells and Patrick Hatton), two Loop office workers, sit on the beach checking out the women; by this point Danny, the young “innocent,” has completely internalized Bernie’s perverse, dehumanizing fantasies. As the two men size up and dissect the women “flaunting their bodies” all around them, Bernie suddenly and unexpectedly seems on the verge of sobbing. Though he continues to mouth sentiments like, “With tits like that, who needs . . . anything?” for Danny’s benefit, Bernie is overwhelmed by emotion, his eyes tearing up, as if he’s suddenly been made aware of the monster he is.

Bernie’s near-breakdown is director Joe Jahraus’s most inspired choice in this production, because it demonstrates his keen understanding of the seriousness of the stakes in Mamet’s play. This is not a cute comedy about the singles scene, like the bastardized film version of the play, About Last Night . . . Rather it is a powerful and nearly debilitating indictment of what one character calls “the physical and mental mutilations we perpetrate on each other, day in, day out . . . trying to fit ourselves into a pattern we can neither understand . . . nor truly afford to investigate.” The pattern in question is our culture’s ideas about sex and sex roles and the violence inherent in those ideas, a pattern so insidious that it is nearly inescapable.

Men not only direct that violence against women, Mamet deftly points out, but have turned it inward, against themselves. Our culture wants men to kill their emotions, and denigrates them in women, because emotions can cause us to lose control. When Danny and Deb (Eileen Glenn), who have attempted to fall in love in a world that allows no such thing, finally break up, Deb taunts Danny by saying, “No more magic. Tell me what you’re feeling. Jerk.” So too in that masterful final moment on the beach, played with utter commitment by Wells, Bernie seems ready to break down because he becomes aware that he has no feelings, and the terror of his self-imposed isolation, his inability to experience real intimacy with anyone, can no longer be denied. He has successfully become a “man” in the terms our culture lays down, and that success has left him completely broken.

The brilliance of Mamet’s play is his ability to dramatize the damage perpetrated by our culture on everyone. No one benefits in this world, not even the men who seem to run the show. In fact, the women–Deb and her roommate Joan (Jody Eaton)–are the strongest characters onstage, because they confront their problems frankly. The posturing, the attitude that so pollutes Danny and Bernie seems not to infect these women. Yet the play does not ignore the abuse they suffer; their humiliation is particularly apparent. In what is perhaps the play’s ugliest moment, after Joan has repeatedly brushed off Bernie’s attempts to pick her up in a bar, he calls her a “cunt.” Her first impulse, of course, is to leave, but then in a crushingly sad moment she returns to him and says, “I’m sorry if I was being rude to you.” Eaton plays this moment perfectly, showing the ordeal that Joan puts herself through, discarding her own dignity to placate this abusive man, as if she believes that rejecting him makes her unattractive.

Jahraus’s production admirably confronts such ugliness while at the same time maintaining Mamet’s grotesque humor. But the evening is hampered by a rather leaden pace. Sexual Perversity is written as a series of short scenes, some of them only five or six lines long. Jahraus unfortunately chooses to end nearly every scene with a full blackout, thus starting and stopping the show so many times that it’s difficult to maintain any momentum. Occasional transitions using shifts of lighting were more successful because they didn’t impede the show’s flow. This play needs to accumulate, almost relentlessly; the scenes need to intertwine, metaphorically trapping the characters as they are trapped within this perverse world. With Jahraus’s uniform presentation, no scene is highlighted, and it is difficult to find a trajectory to take us through the evening.

This production is also hampered at times by acting that’s too restrained. No character is really crystallized onstage–Wells’s Bernie comes the closest, but then Bernie is perhaps the play’s most easily acted character. All four seem at times bland and unfocused. Perhaps most problematic is that Hatton doesn’t allow Danny to evolve throughout the evening. Since it is arguably Danny’s perversion that is the sexual perversion in Chicago, he needs to go through a huge and horrifying transformation; but Hatton seems rather static. His work early in the show as the naive amateur trying to understand his relationship with Deb is quite endearing, but he doesn’t let his journey affect him as strongly as the play demands.

This production ably explores Sexual Perversity in Chicago, and though it never fully gels, it does offer enough moments of insight and emotional complexity to make for a thought-provoking evening.

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