Grace Gummer, Laura Heidinger, Kathryn Kates, Max Lodge, Charlie Mitchell, Jim Noonan, Peter O’Connor
While further downtown, audiences can currently experience the theatrical equivalent of shock treatment – visceral, physical acts of cruelty – in the form of Sarah Kane’s Blasted, in the East Village there’s a play currently on display that strikes a more paradoxically subtle in-yer-face chord.
That play is Lukas Brfuss’s The Sexual Neuroses Of Our Parents, currently receiving a thoroughly adept production by Electric Pear at the Wild Project.
As regards his choice of challenging, sexually explicit subject matter, Swiss playwright Brfuss follows in the footsteps of Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill, British playwrights whose unabashedly nonnormative subject matter flew in the faces of critics in 1990s London, where this translation had its debut at the Gate Theatre in the fall of 2007.
Sexual Neuroses, translated by Neil Blackadder, fleshes out a world where our mentally challenged heroine Dora ought not be imagined as anything other than a unique, sexual being. The sexualities of the disabled are a fairly revolutionary topic for a play, and here the subject is tackled with an abundance of dignity and humor.
Dora, our heavily-medicated protagonist, accompanies her mother to the doctor’s in the opening scene of the play. After years of over-drugged, underwhelming years of stability, Dora’s mother would like to ween her off her medications. From the get-go, we’re presented with an Apollonian-Dionysian conundrum. Which is preferable, vegetative stability or wildly impassioned unpredictability?
The doctor indeed allows Dora to stop taking her medications, and this is what spurs the bulk of the play’s action. Dora, who works at a fruit stand, soon meets a fine gentleman customer and becomes caught up in the notion of sex after a harried, violent encounter with him in a hotel room. While her boss offers her up for inspection as a reassurance to skeptical customers (“We make absolutely sure that our Dora is clean,” he reassures the gentleman), the fine gentleman (as he’s billed in the program) would prefer she never shower.
Soon, the consequences of Dora’s actions arise. Even while addressing issues of abortion and coercive hysterectomy, however, the play only rarely descends to didacticism, as in several of the scenes in the doctor’s office. Brfuss’s talent is in viewing broader issues through the lenses of individuals. The supposed perversions of the characters are never fetishized. We’re never made to feel fundamentally unsettled by these characters. Their sexual deviances are merely character traits, even if their tics seem sometimes less than attractive. Dora’s doctor is flirtatious, the fine gentleman likes to get a little kinky, and Dora’s own parents explore their own sexuality as a couple. Dora is merely one of the bunch, not an outsider, and this, ultimately, is a refreshing perspective.
This production’s fine cast is headed by Grace Gummer, making her stage debut as Dora alongside a similarly gifted cast. Gummer, one of Meryl Streep’s daughters, has the inherent presence of her mother; when she’s on-stage she commands an audience’s focus effortlessly. Gummer straddles magnificently that delicate line between pathos and playfulness. Her timing is impeccable; she knows just which lines to throw away and which to linger over.
Perhaps most ingeniously, Brfuss has the character of Dora adopt her patterns of speech from those around her. She repeats “I don’t know,” “I feel it,” and other generic phrases sporadically like a broken record, her entire train of thought made up of borrowed bits and fragments. Through this device, we get the sense that Dora is entirely a product of those who surround her. But rather than serving as a mere cipher, instead she’s an active presence in the drama. We’re forced to consider the implications of her choices, however scripted, in the broader context of the world at large.
Though this premiere New York production is less gleefully manic than the London production last fall, most of the the fluid, fast-moving qualities of that production are in evidence here. Moza Saracho’s three-section set allows for scenes to transition between Dora’s home, the doctor’s office, and a dingy hotel room. And while Kristjan Thor’s direction is undeniably inside-the-box, it’s never less than solid.
Though The Sexual Neuroses Of Our Parents certainly isn’t a play for everyone, it’s one that’s worth experiencing nonetheless. Despite the seemingly harsh realities of its subject matter, it’s a play that’s simultaneously unafraid of addressing serious topics and eliciting a few laughs from its audience along the way. That in itself is a rare enough occurrence on the New York stage and reason enough to recommend this smart, stylish production.