It's been 40 years since David Mamet wrote Sexual Perversity in Chicago, and in that time, the social landscape has undergone such a climactic change that what once felt edgy, is now just loud, obnoxious and repetitively boring.
In a series of ultimately connected vignettes, Mamet has a quartet of working class young adults recount the story of a budding, then fading, relationship between Debbie and Dan watched (and judged) by their "friends," Joan and Bernie. What starts off charming, progresses into love (at least on Dan's part) and admiration before devolving into ugliness—all to the accompaniment of a plethora of coarse, vulgar language (think of the worst obscenities you've ever heard).
This said, the production of Sexual Perversity in Chicago by Fearless Productions now onstage at the Edison Valley Playhouse contains some of the finest performances I have seen this year. Director Michael Burdick keeps a firm hand on the proceedings, never letting the audience breathe between the scene changes or allowing the energy of his actors to flag. You see, this is an angry play as Joan and Bernie voice their vituperative opinions about Dan and Debbie, respectively, not to mention the opposite sex in general.
On a multi-venue set designed by Brian Remo, the four accomplished actors strut their dramatic stuff. Brian Remo's Bernie (right in photo above) is a foul-mouthed, misogynistic, homophobic jerk who thinks he's cat of the walk and who spares no salacious details of his sexual conquests, most of which sound so outlandish as to be unbelievable. His female counterpart—a primary school teacher, no less—Joan, is played by Kristina Hernandez (right in photo to the left) with some of the vitriol she showed in Fearless's previous production, The Scene. Her nastiness isn't confined to the opposite sex; she's the teacher from Hell, one you wouldn't trust with your toddler! Both characters are given to long, obscenity-laced rants, Bernie about being molested by a male adult in the movies, Joan about a date's premature ejaculation. Neither ever seems to shut up.
As their foils, Debbie (Morgan Vasquez, right with Rae and above left with Hernandez) and Dan (Matthew Rae (top photo, left) "meet cute" at the gym, and tentatively feel their way as their relationship develops. When they move in together, things fall apart, however, and they begin to bicker about little things (shampoo, for one) to shouting matches over male-female roles. Dan begins to sound like Bernie; Deb echoes Joan.
By the end of the evening, Mamet has completed a dramatic circle as the more likable pair becomes just as repulsive as their so-called friends. Unfortunately, the only "growth" exhibited by the characters is stunted. The antipathy toward the opposite sex is just as strong in the final scene as the first. The only difference is that nice guy Dan has become just as repulsive as Bernie.
It's hard to recall that such misogyny was once rampant; perhaps Mamet, in this early play, has resorted to hyperbole to make a point. I doubt that young men today would talk about and treat women with such scathing disdain, and vice versa. Much has changed in four decades, post Equal Rights Amendment (which did not pass), thank goodness. While David Mamet has gone on to write some pretty good plays (Glengarry Glen Ross, for one), Fearless Productions has lived up to its name with this production of Sexual Perversity in Chicago.
By the way, Director Burdick gives us a dramatic "appetizer" with a playlet entitled Gravediggers, a riff on Hamlet told from the point-of-view of the "common man"—in this case two female gravediggers. As they prepare a grave for Polonius, they rag on Queen Gertrude for committing incest, badmouth "the kid from Wittenberg" for his unmanly grief and even discuss the place of free will in their own lives. It's a clever "take" on a classic.
Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Gravediggers will be performed at the Edison Valley Playhouse, 2196 Oak Tree Lane, Edison, through July 20. For more information visit www.fearlessprod.com. For tickets, visit www.ticketleap.com or call the box office at 908.755.4854.
Do not bring children to see this show. It contains coarse language and adult themes.