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Oedipus at Palm Springs

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

You think your love life is problematic? Count your blessings! It can always be worse. Take, for example, Oedipus, that doyen of Greek tragedy who's best known for killing his father and marrying his mother. Sure, there's a bit more to the story, but he had to deal with issues that could never apply to anyone living today, right?

Well, don't be so sure. While concepts like fate and predetermination are probably best avoided when dealing with sensitive subjects like love, The Five Lesbian Brothers make a pretty convincing case in their new play Oedipus at Palm Springs that warning signs should be taken seriously, regardless of the form in which they appear.

A lack of passion? A sexual fire that can't be quenched? Lying to yourself or your partner about your past? None signals a healthy relationship in this brisk, modern refraction of the timeless tragedy, but each points to the possibility that hope can remain in even the most dire circumstances. As intimacy is a sickness, so can it be the cure; for all the damage love inflicts, it and trust are the only real building blocks for fulfilling lives or relationships.

Yes, the Brothers (Maureen Angelos, Babs Davy, Dominique Dibbell, Peg Healey, and Lisa Kron) are shying a bit from the wildly satirical tone of their previous plays, but they probably couldn't write a convincing blood-soaked homage to Sophocles if their lives depended on it. What they can do - and what they expertly do here - is use the familiar story as a starting point for a rigorous and raucous examination of how love and sex affect and infect today's world.

We're presented with two couples at differing positions on the commitment spectrum: Fran and Con (Angelos and Kron) are married and have a three-year-old son, but haven't had sex in four years; Prin and Terri (Dibbell and Healey) have dated for seven years and are still hot and heavy for each other. They've all convened for a romantic weekend at a deluxe Palm Springs lesbian resort so that Fran and Con hope can rekindle their dying flames, and so Prin can "propose" to Terri, who's turning 37 and still coping with the death of her adoptive mother.

But the resort's blind, prognosticating proprietor Joni (Davy) senses trouble, and her warnings about the fleeting nature of possessions, love, and happiness fall on deaf ears. Fran and Con battle to overcome Fran's revulsion to all things sexual (she now sees her breasts as exclusively for food, not pleasure) and Prin and Terri try to maintain their happiness even as it becomes evident their relationship is built on at least one devastating lie. And - you guessed it - those fated for tragedy step right into it, despite their attempts to avoid it and the best intentions of all involved.

No, this play evinces neither a particularly original structure nor slavish devotion to form (sorry, no bloody corpses are carted out onstage). But the Brothers and their director, Leigh Silverman, instead find a nearly ideal balance between the traditional and the experimental, and the bawdy and the bathetic. You may be immediately struck by David Korins's stunningly gorgeous cream-and-rose spa set, but the antics that fill it and the keening, hand-wringing emotionalism that fill the rest of the theater are what finally define the show as being equal parts Greek tragedy and Marx Brothers slapstick.

Central is Kron, who with Silverman triumphed in her self-scripted Well at The Public last year, and presents here a harried, antic woman dripping with caring, compassion, and drooling desperation. She shakes the theater's walls with anguished cries rebuking Fran's disinterest as easily as she shakes them with laughter when she lets a Jacuzzi jet provide the satisfaction she's longing for. She's an unstoppable theatrical force and a presence to be reckoned with that's not matched by her castmates.

Davy, though, is a cool kick as the kooky Joni, and Healey's quietly powerful turn as the soon-to-be-bent straight arrow Terri is one of the evening's most gripping surprises. Angelos and Dibbell are stuffier, and find less of the random, insatiable joy that the other actresses do. Still, they communicate their feelings with crystal clarity that bespeaks the familiarity and comfort the actresses have with each other; it's that quality that allows them all to create a cohesive universe quite a bit greater than the sum of its parts.

Oedipus at Palm Springs, though, is exactly the sum of its parts: There's no question what you'll get, but how you'll get it is a constantly renewing surprise. The Brothers keep you on your toes, on the edge of your seat, and even bring you to your knees as only experienced performers knowledgeable in their craft truly can. While it's doubtful they have much experience in all the specifics of the plot, each completely convinces you she understands all too well about the infinite capacity of the human heart and the barriers we lower for others that might be better left in place.

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Oedipus at Palm Springs
Through August 28
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes with no intermission
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge