It can't be easy making pornography boring. But the new production of Paula Vogel's play Hot 'N' Throbbing at the Peter Norton Space manages to do just that.
True, it's not the primary focus of the play; Vogel is more concerned with the potentially fatal nature of violent, uncontrollable attraction. But shouldn't scenes intended to be sexy at least come across as slightly more erotic than paying your taxes? This production - which completes the Signature Theatre Company's season dedicated to Vogel - is made distinctive not only by its glacial coolness and its inability to throb, but its complete lack of even a basic pulse.
Despite the nearly Herculean efforts of director Les Waters to spice up a bland stew of an evening, this Hot 'N' Throbbing is bearable for, at most, its first 30 minutes. Until that point, the story about Charlene (Lisa Emery), a screenwriter of feminist porn (sorry, "adult entertainment") trying to raise her children Leslie Ann (Suli Holum) and Calvin (Matthew Stadelmann) with some sense of responsibility and values, is mildly intriguing. As Charlene desperately tries to complete 40 pages of her latest work by the morning, voiceovers (provided by Rebecca Wisocky and Tom Nelis) elucidate not only the words she's writing, but her state of mind and inner thoughts. It's a familiar device, but as staged by Waters and lit by Robert Wierzel, who floods the stage with intense washes of white and blood red, is at least visually alluring.
But from the moment Charlene's ex-husband Clyde bursts through the front door of Mark Wendland's impressively realistic suburban house set, the play becomes irreparably unhinged. It's not just that unfolding events find Charlene shooting Clyde, before falling for him all over again, though the clichéd way in which that happens and the predictable end they both meet don't suggest much innate originality. The problem is that the actor playing Clyde, Elias Koteas, gives the most singularly unconvincing performance of this season, or many others in recent memory.
From his initial drunken wails as he pounds on the front door, Koteas is at variance with humanity. Tapping into Clyde's inner animal might be appropriate for the base, unglued character, but Koteas does little more than indicate every feeling: he indicates inebriety, anger, and various feelings for Charlene. Yet when, minutes later, Clyde is wounded by a bullet to his buttock, Koteas spends scant seconds of the next 60 minutes indicating even mild pain, and then in the constipated manner of a college acting student who not only has never been shot, but has never seen a gun.
He acts entirely through constricted-throat whining and strategically placed blood packets, and winces his way through the remainder of the show, which deals almost entirely with the Clyde-Charlene pairing. Emery tries to maintain some dignity in their scenes together, but is eventually sucked into Koteas's void of unbelievability. As the play progresses and we experience the myriad dysfunctions of their relationship, Emery becomes less able to portray Charlene's conflicting needs to feed her family, satisfy her ravenous artistic soul, and fulfill her own sexual longings with the one man she should never give a second glance.
Holum, who does a considerable amount of exotic dancing (David Neumann is the choreographer) in minimal amounts of clothing (Ilona Somogyi designed the costumes), can't capture Leslie Ann's cracked innocence; she looks and acts 15 years too mature for most of her role, though she handles herself fine in a brief scene set a decade after the play's primary action. Much better is Stadelmann, who never loses sight of his character's precocious, awkward nature, and finds easier humor and pathos in his role than anyone else can manage.
Wisocky and Nelis are at their most effective when at their most subtle. They're made up to look like a bondage queen and a hard-boiled detective from the same film-noir detective flick, and frequently prowl the set like stray alley cats; they better contribute to the creepy delusions of the story (and Charlene's flustered mind) when simply whispering into their headset microphones. (The terrific sound design is by Darron L. West.)
But a truly suffusive atmosphere to make all these elements coalesce into something provocative is absent from the proceedings. This gives the show an aimless, circuitous feeling; it tends to ramble on and on in search of a point that it never finds. Unless, that is, you consider Vogel's message to be that unhealthy love is, well, unhealthy, or that restraining orders only work when they're respected by all parties concerned.
In either case, the play doesn't cover much new ground. Most attempts from Vogel and Waters to give the play a deeper, more psychological meaning fall flat, and certain things - such as the reason the set's walls and doors start pulling away from the main action - defy easy explanation. If nothing else proves as questionable as Koteas's casting, what Vogel and Waters were aiming for is never fully made clear - or interesting - in this mounting of Hot 'N' Throbbing.
Signature Theatre Company