The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents
nytheatre.com review by Jason S. Grossman
November 11, 2008
A daring new play dealing with sensitive sexual and mental health issues makes its US premiere at The Wild Project. The casual, frank exploration of sex is often jarring and darkly funny.
Young Dora awakens after ten years from a haze of tranquilizers. She can read, but can't remember anything. She doesn't seem to care about anything and repeatedly responds to questions with a monotone, "I don't know." But with her "awakening" comes a strong sexual appetite. Her mother and father are horrified when she comes home after a night of rough sex with bruises all over her body. Problems escalate when Dora becomes pregnant after having sex with a peculiar boyfriend figure, a Fine Gentleman.
The script by Swiss playwright Lukas Bärfuss and translated by Neil Blackadder is not the typical boy meets girl story, and the controversial themes presented are emotionally charged. We never find out from which illness Dora suffers although it seems to be a type of autism.The other characters often talk to her as if she's a young child or an alien from another planet. Her father is virtually absent from her upbringing while her mother vaguely means well but is ultimately ineffectual. When Dora's sex drive blossoms, her mother is at a loss and falters grossly in her efforts to help her. Her only solution is to bring Dora to a doctor.
The characters are compelling and complicated. You won't find clear-cut good or bad guys here. Everyone's sexual confusion results from what their parents passed on to them.
There are nice moments of self-discovery. Dora reveals that she enjoys rough sex. And she displays a rare moment of joy after stumbling upon her mother having sex.
Dora might represent the innocent being, free from her elders' self-conscious teachings on sexual activity. At one point, her doctor leers at length at Dora as she changes (she's merely a live pinup girl unaware of what he's doing). Later, when she attempts to perform fellatio on him, he is aghast (almost repulsed) as he rebuffs her.
The play bluntly mocks the largely puritanical attitudes of the characters towards sexuality and the suppression of Dora's libido (her doctor outlines a myriad of sexual don'ts). It also raises the question of the use of psychiatric drugs to treat mental illness.
Kristjan Thor's direction is air-tight, effectively bringing the warped essence of the play to life. He effectively mines humor from the dark subject matter. The pacing is perfect,and the scenes practically overlap taking place at all points on the stage and through the aisles of the theatre.
Grace Gummer is excellent as the woman-child transforming from deadpan indifference to parroting key emotional phrases of the people around her. Gummer reveals a very nice arc in her portrayal of Dora amid the sexual confusion around her. Her final scene is especially bittersweet. Max Lodge is outstanding as the Fine Gentlemen, an idiosyncratic perfume salesman. He is equally pompous, repulsive, and magnetic. The rest of the cast is strong, presenting the characters as alternately well-intentioned and hypocritical.
Moza Saracho's set design is functional and attractive. The suggestive touches are consistently effective in setting up the various locales in the play. Kathleen Dobbins's lighting works well within the set design's framework and compliments it well.
The play floats through a linear narrative with numerous abstract elements. We aren't allowed to feel too connected with any of the characters. The play is wrought with ambiguities. What's quite clear is that it's not just our parents who are neurotic about sex.