Hot 'N' Throbbing
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
March 25, 2005
I respect Paula Vogel. I’m always happy to see a play of hers. She finds dark humor and an idiosyncratic theatricality in every important and exciting subject she chooses to explore. I find her plays to have certain flaws that leave me dramatically dissatisfied, but the flaws can be fascinating and do not detract from the ultimate power of each work.
Case in point: her new play, Hot ‘N’ Throbbing, which is receiving a first-class production under the direction of Les Waters at the Signature Theatre Company. It is the mid-'90s and Charlene, an ordinary single mom of two teenagers in suburban Maryland, is screenlighting as a scriptwriter for Gyno Productions (an adult entertainment company with a feminist bent). Like most writers, Charlene has a double awareness: her imagination—or at least, her writerly voices (personified by an adult film actress, called “The Voice-over,” and a noirish detective known as “the Voice”)— is always at play, transforming the most banal family conflicts into fodder for her almost-past-its-deadline script.
Charlene is also a pushover—she is an occasional member of A.A. and not a terribly effective disciplinarian for her two teenagers. She can’t keep her rebellious, mini-skirted daughter Leslie Ann from going out with her sexually-advanced friends, and can’t encourage her bookwormy and mother-protective son, Calvin, to do something other than stay home and read Moby Dick. So it comes as no surprise that when Clyde, her alcoholic, abusive ex-husband shows up and drunkdoorbells her, she ultimately lets him in. Then, clearly aware of how dangerous he is, she removes a gun from her robe and commands him to go home; when he does not, she shoots near him, grazing him in the butt. Then she goes for the hydrogen peroxide and Band-aids. Then before taking him to the hospital, they sit (as best they can) and discuss old times and why their marriage didn’t work and why it’s not a good idea to try it again but how they’re still attracted to one another and why don’t they have sex one more time. I won’t tell you what happens, but it turns out not to be a good idea.
In Hot ’N’ Throbbing, Vogel is dealing with objectification of and violence towards women in a very skillful and layered way. Charlene’s script, as gutturally uttered by the Voice-over, begins: “She was hot. She was throbbing. But she was in control. Control of her body. Control of her thoughts. Control of…. him.” That a former beaten-wife (and endurer, perhaps, of many other atrocious behaviors in her past) would be drawn to “reclaiming” the erotic female form and putting it on a pedestal to tantalize the men who once abused it, makes perfect sense. But Vogel seems to be asking if having women “in control” of manufacturing heterosexual males’ fantasies is a kind of empowerment or merely a form of enabling.
Shedding beer-tears, Clyde explains how he’d been out that evening looking for some hot action, but in every instance, he was becoming aware of the truth behind the fantasy—the women who stoke his fantasies may be mothers or wives, women just trying to make a buck, with no sincere sexual interest in him. There is a fascinating speech ensconced within this longwinded monologue Vogel has given him, and it was at this point that the play began to feel more intellectual to me, losing a kind of visceral momentum. Charlene decides she will treat him to a little fantasy herself, and the result is a tragedy. But the means of getting there felt a little contrived, which is not the case with the preceding 80 minutes.
Still, I’ve been thinking about Hot ‘N’ Throbbing for days after I saw it. This is helped by Waters’ exceptionally vivid production. First of all, he’s picked excellent designers—Mark Wendland’s set is wide and flat, the first floor living / dining room of a middle-middle-class single-parent home; Robert Wierzel’s lighting and Darron L. West’s sound work in tandem to create an atmosphere that is alternately sexy and spooky; and the costumes by Ilona Somogyi are spot-on, particularly Charlene’s dowdy housewear and the Voice-over’s shiny black dominatrix duds. Lisa Emery is in expert control of the wishy-washy protagonist, and Suli Holum has a vulnerable volatility as her daughter—they stand out in an all-together stellar cast.
My theatre-going companion and I left the theatre with a lot to talk about, and that to me is the sign of a smart, ambitious, and generous dramatist. Paula Vogel is writing about some timely and terrifying stuff, and Les Waters is bringing it to rich and full life. Don’t miss this show.