Hurt So Good
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
August 31, 2006
Equal parts expose and sex-ed class, Johnny Blaze Leavitt's new comedy Hurt So Good is also one of the biggest and most pleasant surprises of the still-young theatre season. Smart and engaging, Leavitt's story of one man's initiation into the world of BDSM teaches tolerance, encourages diversity, and reminds us that love and sex aren't confined to the little vanilla breadbox we often want to keep them in.
Tom is an aspiring documentary filmmaker whose soon-to-be live-in girlfriend, Cecily, has a surprising confession: she's a sexual submissive who wants him to dominate her. Having no idea what exactly that means, Tom sets out to learn more. He gathers up his film crew and embarks on a journey into the BDSM subculture to find out how to be a proper master, what being a submissive entails, and get some good footage for a new documentary project. Of course, Tom and his intrepid crew discover some unexpected things about themselves and each other along the way.
Leavitt succeeds on several fronts with Hurt So Good. First of all, his play is funny. Hurt So Good has a lot of fun ribbing both its protagonists and its subject. When telling his best friend, Keller, about Cecily's revelation, Tom immediately conjures images of leather-clad sadists in a dark dungeon. "Dude, I can't do any of that stuff!" he exclaims, "I mean, I don't even have a basement!" Later on, Keller protests Tom's suggestion that the film crew attend its first fetish party. The reason? "It's in Queens!" In Act II, while pondering the morality of having a female submissive (played perfectly by Maggie Cino) clean their apartment, Tom and Keller both pause long enough to note that "the place looks great, though."
Second, this is skillful writing. Leavitt surrounds Tom with a crew that represents several opposing viewpoints: there's Mairi, the quiet one who goes with the flow; Keller, the smart-ass who makes fun of everything (sometimes as a defense mechanism); and the tightly-wound Rebecca, who freaks out when confronted with something that doesn't jibe with her beliefs. The beauty of his writing here is that this device never feels likes one. When Tom & Co. debate the validity of their documentary and the BDSM lifestyle (which is often), their arguments come off as believable disputes between friends and co-workers.
Leavitt also demystifies common misconceptions about the BDSM community, putting the image of dungeon-dwelling masochists quickly to rest as Tom & Co. come into contact with a smorgasbord of people who, while firmly entrenched in the lifestyle, turn out to be just regular folks. They may do things a little differently in their relationships (and their bedrooms) than others, but they still want love, compassion, and understanding just like everybody else. And, their relationships are governed by the same tenets: trust, consent, and communication. Leavitt does a great job of making the lifestyle palatable and un-scary for the audience.
Hurt So Good is also blessed with a compelling immediacy that throws the audience right into the thick of things, experiencing the play's eye-opening twists and turns along with the protagonists. But Leavitt (who also directs, assisted ably by Suse Sternkopf) never handles any of the play's potentially sensitive moments—which include the film crew's first trip to sex toy store, and Tom's first administering of a spanking to a willing sub—in a way that's distasteful or uncomfortable for the audience (this is a comedy, after all). What's life-altering for the characters is fun-and-games for the audience.
The production is complemented by a marvelous ensemble cast of 23. There are many standout performances including Marlise Garde, Chris Keating, and Alyssa Mann as the fish-out-of-water film crew Rebecca, Keller, and Mairi, respectively; Jessie J. Fahay as Cecily; Sonia Gardea as Mistress Lyla, a dominatrix who is the crew's first point of contact; Amy Kersten, a Wonder Woman-clad sub who proves to be a sticking point later on; and Gerard J. Savoy as Master Anthony, an intense but seductive dom who befriends the film crew. Anchoring the production is an endearing lead performance by Leavitt as Tom.
Hurt So Good achieves what good theatre aims to do: it entertains while encouraging the viewer to question and examine their own beliefs. If the subject matter sounds a little frightening to some, there's comfort to be found in the maxim laid down by one of the characters who tells Tom, "Fear itself can be fun." Indeed.