nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
May 10, 2010
In the hands of most playwrights, Lascivious Something would be a straightforward, tightly constructed three-character piece about a marriage fractured by the return of an old flame, and cracking open to reveal a raft of increasingly dark histories for all three. On a hilltop on a remote Greek island (abstractly evoked by Christopher Akerlind's sun-bleached lighting and Marsha Ginsberg's set, mostly composed of towering cubes of stones), on the day Ronald Reagan is elected president for the first time, an aging American activist turns up on the doorstep of her former lover, now married to a young Greek woman and trying to run a vineyard. Liza claims to be backpacking around Europe, to have accidentally discovered the tiny guesthouse August and Daphne run via a cork board in a hostel somewhere, but it's immediately clear she's come there for a reason. What that reason is won't, of course, be revealed till much later—through a slow excavation into layers of emotional history and successive secrets among the three that charts the course of the play.
But Sheila Callaghan isn't most playwrights—she has a much more intricate theatrical imagination, beautifully channeled here through director Daniella Topol's production—and so although Lascivious Something is, on one level, exactly the story of that love triangle, given metaphorical resonance by its use of the death of a certain kind of American political idealism as a backdrop to the romantic idealism being punctured, it also has a lot of other levels to explore. It's got a darker, murkier triangle of power and eroticism among August, Daphne, and a teenage girl called Boy who works in the vineyard, which echoes against other threads involving past and future children. It's full of explicit sidesteps into formalized storytelling and investigating the meaning and nature of the legends we tell: Personal stories for the characters—an incident from August's relationship with Liza, as retold by Daphne. Snippets of history—the tale of a particular, historic bottle of wine. Greek myths—the birth of Dionysos, the Greek god of wine. The play's storytelling is also punctuated by sort of narrative hiccups, little sideways skips in which fraught scenes play themselves out twice, once in a direction that threatens chaos, and once in a way that wrenches the story back on track.
And in each one of these narrative hiccups, I found myself catching a glimpse of an archetypal dichotomy: the philosophical/metaphorical clash between Apollo and Dionysos, the god of the sun and the god of wine: between self-control and passionate impulse, between order and chaos, between reason and instinct. At each of these turns, the story seems to begin with Dionysos and end with Apollo, to skip back to the moment before an eruption of passionate impulse and replay it toward a more reasoned, albeit often more conventional goal—but one, we now know, that contains the same raw materials under the more civilized veneer. This split also plays out in the contrast between the ethereally cool Daphne (given an elegant pragmatism by Elisabeth Waterston), who August claims never sweats, and the more visceral Liza, who bites. Ironically, although Dionysos is the god of wine—and August is deeply susceptible to the mythical power of that beverage, having spent the better part of his and Daphne's life savings on a legendary bottle of it—the business of wine, here, and August's choice to forsake American political activism to revolutionize the Greek wine industry, seems to fall on the side of reason.
And yet there's another, further, twist, because another dichotomy the play's alluding to, obliquely, is diverging paths in American, and then world, history. At the moment of Reagan's election ("Morning in America," to run with the "sun god" metaphor for a moment) and the moment when Greece is poised to join the European Economic Community, the forces that would ultimately lead to the world's—and most recently Greece's—economic meltdown 30 years later are being unleashed (and overtly foreshadowed here).
There are so many layers of shifting metaphor and meaning here that occasionally the simplest level of character relationships—especially the push-and-pull of Daphne's constantly shifting position toward Liza—can get a little muddied. And in some of the more poetically written passages, I might have liked a little less of a stylistic shift in the acting; the performances are otherwise very grounded and crisp, and I'm not sure the tonal shift is necessary.
But these are small quibbles—it's a rich, complicated, thought-provoking piece of writing given a strong production by the Women's Project, one that I'm still thinking about. Whether history could have turned out differently, of course, is impossible to say, but Lascivious Something effectively mines the "what-ifs" and the dark currents inside the stories we tell ourselves, and the choices we make.