It’s a comedy that isn’t funny. It’s filled with sex and women in various stages of dress and undress, yet is not even mildly titillating. It’s a message piece that says nothing. Perhaps most maddening, it runs only 70 minutes, yet feels as if it drags on longer than the seven-hour trilogy day of The Norman Conquests.
It doesn’t even have a plot - although given what tattered scraps of story you find scattered throughout this crisply listless production, that may not be a negative. Connie (Jessica Hecht) is a bored suburban mother of two who wants to spice up her marriage by taking control of her husband, Eddie (Anthony Arkin), for 25 minutes every morning. To sharpen her shabby skills, she’s signed up to study with a professional dominatrix, Mistress Lorraine (Candy Buckley). When Connie leaves Eddie handcuffed to a chair while she’s off mastering the use of bullwhips and stiletto heels, neighbors Sissy and Hank (Ellen Parker and J.R. Horne) find out, and begin to question how much juice is left in their own long-running union.
That’s all, folks. The women are forced to question how much control they have and how much they want, and of course their poles switch several times. The men are forced to confront the women’s sexual hungers and proclivities, and either deal with them or end whatever relationship exists between them. And the audience is forced to endure scene after tedious scene of roundabout dialogue from wishy-washy personalities and the piercing and endless cries of “Yes, Mistress” and “No, Mistress” (mostly from Richard Masur, who plays Mistress Lorraine’s token submissive) that burble through the theater like malfunctioning air raid sirens.
Almost every moment is misjudged. The joke is supposed to be that Connie’s trying to force a dangerous eroticism into her too-tired-to-be-sexy routine, but Hecht always behaves as though she’s dressing for a Halloween party immediately after receiving a root canal. Parker and Horne find absolutely no energy or smoldering romance in Sissy and Hank, and their grandma-and-grandpa shtick wears out its welcome early. Anna Louizos’s set captures the private (a bedroom), the public (a living room), and the fantasy (a domination parlor), but does so with no style or imagination. The influence of a guiding artistic hand is so unobservable given what’s onstage, one is forced to wonder what the billed director, Christian Parker, did at all.
The only thing that temporarily stirs up the prevailing doldrums is Buckley. An actress who excels at playing women who dispense complicated truths, she has a halting, matter-of-fact voice and a rougher-edged attractiveness that don’t make her seem overtly ideal for embodying forbidden sex appeal. And most of her time onstage, she looks uncomfortable and unamused with the close-fitting corset and weapon-like boots that costume designer Theresa Squire has assigned her. Yet after a series of travails too turgid to regurgitate here, she appears briefly in “civilian” dress, causing Mistress Lorraine to come together. That fleeting glimpse of a popularly accepted vision of womanhood demonstrates exactly how she, her clients, and you are affected by the physical and psychological masquerades on which the character’s livelihood depends.
Then and only then do you glimpse the incisive indictment of professional, personal, and political role-playing this play could have been, how sex can be as confining as it is releasing and as much an instrument of emotional torture as of bodily pleasure. The rest of the time, Make Me is torture of a very different and infinitely less arousing kind.