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Aphrodisiac

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Much has been said about power: that it corrupts, that it's the ultimate aphrodisiac. And, in the highest reaches of government, power can make mighty people do mighty strange things. Who can forget President William Jefferson Clinton, impeached for reasons related to his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky? Or Gary Condit, a California representative who got in trouble of a very different kind with another intern named Chandra Levy?

Ah, the tricks that time can play. Condit's story was all the rage in 2001, before the terrorist attacks of September 11 pushed it from the front pages, and though Levy's remains were discovered the following year, for many, the memory of this intern and her relationship with the California congressman might be foggy at this point. Rob Handel hasn't forgotten, and demonstrates in his new play Aphrodisiac at P.S. 122 that Levy and Lewinsky may have had more in common than it at first seemed.

Handel's intern has a different name (Ilona Waxman), as does the congressman implicated in her disappearance (Dan Ferris), but the similarities between the factual and fictional cases are otherwise striking. What's most intriguing about Handel's treatment of the story is that neither Waxman nor Ferris ever appears onstage: Their story is told almost exclusively from the points of view of Ferris's children, Alma (Jennifer Dundas) and Avery (Thomas Jay Ryan).

They're struggling to come to terms with their father as not only a potential murderer, but a sexual being. They've long been aware of his infidelities, yet never have they been forced to deal with the issues in newspapers and on television. So they deal with it the best way they know how: by role-playing. Each assumes a role of someone different involved in the fracas so they can examine the situation from as many viewpoints as possible, to understand what, for them, can never be completely understood. Their private game veers between the lighthearted and the violent, but proves a sobering coping mechanism for them both.

Handel intelligently weaves together the threads of the story, and the characters shift voices and perspectives with little or no advanced warning: For example, Avery might be speaking for himself one moment, and his father the next, or Alma might be telling an imagined story from Ilona's viewpoint so convincingly that you forget the added layer of complexity. This lends much of the dialogue a witty, unpredictable texture that forces you to be an active participant in disseminating the facts. And Handel wisely doesn't take sides - he makes no excuses for the actions of Ferris, President Clinton, or anyone else, and leaves that up to you as well.

This is all quite compelling up to a point. But Handel's method of dispensing the facts - often through long, somewhat meandering monologues - occasionally makes them difficult to absorb. Director Ken Rus Schmoll's static staging doesn't help; the characters often sit or stand quiet and motionless for minutes at a time watching each other deliver these speeches. The shattering, surprise arrival of Monica Lewinsky (Alison Weller) during the second act is severely diluted when she, too, speaks at great length of her relationship with Clinton, while Avery and Alma stare at her in utter silence.

Given the focused intensity of the performers - particularly Weller, whose keen impersonation of Lewinsky (aided by Michelle R. Phillips's playfully caressing costume) is nearly a showstopper - the lack of energy is unfortunate. And, one suspects, unnecessary; if, because of the speeches, Aphrodisiac might never play as well as it reads, a more inventive director might have devised a way of imparting the necessary details of the complex backstory without grinding the proceedings to a halt.

Schmoll is, however, responsible for the unsettlingly effective staging of the final scene, which finds Alma and Avery (as Ilona and Ferris) embarking on the final car ride they shared together. The subtle, spooky lighting (by Garin Marschall) and the rumbling sound design (Bray Poor) generate in the theater the kind of suffocating emotional atmosphere that exists between the two in the car. You're right there with them, knowing that every passing car is an opportunity for redemption, and every sound of a locking mechanism is a nail in a coffin.

It's in these final moments that Schmoll and Handel come closest to true symbiosis, bringing out the best that the play and its accomplished performers have to offer. But the lack of that communion earlier on hurts the play; it must be present in all four scenes, not just the last, if Aphrodisiac is ever going to be a show to love rather than simply admire.

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13P
Aphrodisiac
Through January 30
Running Time: 90 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission
Downstairs Theater at P.S. 122, 150 First Avenue at 9th Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.477.5288