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Getting It On

Is Sexual Perversity still relevant?

Lately everyone's been talking about Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain -- and rightly so. With its slow-burning exploration of the clandestine love affair between two handsome ranch hands thrust together on a Wyoming mountainside while herding sheep one summer, the film confronts (among other things) conventions surrounding the depiction of cowboys on screen. Brokeback Mountain has garnered praise for intense performances from its two leading men (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) and for its smoldering, tight-lipped script, based on a short story by E. Annie Proulx.

More profound, though, is the film's ability to go beyond the time and place of its setting, the sexual orientation of its protagonists, and the specifics of its conception as an "examination of country homophobia in the land of the Great Pure Noble Cowboy" -- as Proulx puts it on her Web site -- to strike a universal chord. "It's a deeply felt, emotional love story that deals with the uncharted, mysterious ways of the human heart just as so many mainstream films have before it," wrote Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times. "The two lovers here just happen to be men."

The connection between Lee's "gay cowboy movie" (as the film is popularly tagged) and David Mamet's resoundingly straight comedy about the experience of four young singles (two men and two women) in the dating pool, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, may not seem obvious. After all, soulful-eyed cowpokes poking in the pasture have little in common with Mamet's quartet of wisecracking urbanites and their misguided attempts to negotiate the opposite sex.

Sexual Perversity in Chicago.
Ken Friedman
Sexual Perversity in Chicago.

Yet comparing the two works isn't so perverse when you think about it. Both deal with intimate human relationships; both are concerned with the hopeless inadequacy of language to convey true feelings; and both explore, with similar pessimism, the ways in which societal norms impact an individual's actions and attitudes. But while Lee's film and Mamet's play are widely credited for transcending their particular circumstances to speak to anyone who's ever been close to another human being, only one of the two lives up to this claim.

There are few plays by David Mamet, or indeed any contemporary American playwright, that have enjoyed such consistent popularity as Sexual Perversity. Ever since it premiered at New York's Cherry Lane Theatre in 1976, in the process shooting its author to fame, the piece has been revived countless times on professional and university stages both in the U.S. and abroad. It was even adapted into a film -- About Last Night (1986) -- starring Demi Moore and Rob Lowe. To celebrate its 30th birthday, Sexual Perversity comes to ACT, with Peter Riegert, who appeared in the original N.Y. production, directing.

As ACT's staging proves, the play still makes for an entertaining evening at the theater. Firstly, it's short, which for your average ACT subscriber is probably a good thing. (Perversityis often presented in a double-bill with a Mamet one-act from the same period, Duck Variations, but this time it seems the ducks have flown south for the winter.) Secondly, it's savagely funny: bursting with nonsequiturs, outrageous hyperbole (mostly regarding the size of various parts of the human anatomy), and archetypal characters clumsily failing at life. ACT's spunky cast -- David Jenkins (playing Danny Shapiro), Gareth Saxe (Bernard Litko), Marjan Neshat (Deborah Solomon), and Elizabeth Kapplow (Joan Weber) -- ejaculate Mamet's text, hitting his loaded platitudes and four-letter words with forceful comic timing.

But watching the cast stomp around Kent Dorsey's Formica-furnished set in their bell-bottoms and platform heels, I couldn't help but notice that the retro feel applied to more than the costumes and the scenic design: If this 30th-anniversary production celebrates anything, it's how divorced I feel from Mamet's view of dating and sexual relationships. This impression runs counter to ACT's opinion. For the company, Sexual Perversity is as relevant today as it was in the mid-1970s. As Riegert put it in an interview about the production: "I think one thing the play is really about -- and it's even more apparent now that we're re-examining it 30 years later -- is the degree to which nothing really changes. The world changes around us, but the dynamic of how people relate to one another really doesn't."

The director does his best to bring out the timeless elements. The smooth, almost dreamlike flow of Riegert's staging heightens the feeling of shared experience. Instead of the traditional blackouts between Mamet's short, episodic scenes, Riegert makes all the transitions visible. The effect of watching the actors move in full view from one part of the set to another to begin a new scene underscores the idea that we all travel through life making the same mistakes. We know it, but we do it anyway.

Yet I disagree fundamentally with Riegert's vision, and I don't think Sexual Perversity serves the director's cause. The relationship world has changed a great deal since the 1970s, what with AIDS, same-sex marriage, and online dating, to name just a few things. To imagine that such factors have no impact upon interpersonal dynamics is to be stuck in the past. It's not that Neanderthals like Mamet's Bernard Litko don't exist or that straight women don't ever complain to their girlfriends about their boyfriends' premature ejaculation. It's just that there's something so predictable and one-dimensional about Mamet's characters. And smart-aleck twists on heterosexual truisms -- such as Joan's jaded observation, "Men ... they're all after only one thing ... but it's never the same thing" -- don't pack the same punch as they might have three decades ago. In a way, it's a shame that ACT didn't decide to add Duck Variations to the program. That quirky little discourse on death provides the perfect foil for Sexual Perversity, tempering its blustering anachronisms with a quiet shrug.

"The play's triumph may be its ability to transcend its historical moment of bellbottoms and one-night stands and reveal a bitter truth: that intimate relationships are minefields of buried fears and misunderstandings," wrote Jessica Werner (a contributing editor to ACT's "Words on Plays" booklet series) in an essay accompanying the production. The strength of Perversity's archetypes, its gutter-wallowing language, and the muscular rhythms of Mamet's scenes seem to act as a smokescreen for one unassailable fact -- the play no more transcends its time and place than an episode of Happy Days. It's time to revise this piece's position in the cultural cannon. Perhaps Brokeback Mountain, a classic in the making, can take its place.

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