part of the
Midtown International Theatre Festival
When romantic partners are said to have chemistry, the word tends to refer to an amorphous idea rather than one that's legitimately quantifiable. So for her play Sex Curve, which is playing through Sunday at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival, Merridith Allen deserves some credit for making the figurative literal, and exploring how the science of love relates to its similarly named, more theoretical variety. The result is a fascinating experiment, though Allen, who also directs, hasn't yet found the ideal formula.
Her hypothesis, however, is rock solid. Marissa (Bethany Clein) is a doctoral candidate in biochemistry who's just suffered a vicious breakup with the man she was positive she was going to marry. Facing single life again after most of a decade, she theorizes that she — and the female half of humanity — would be better off making decisions about marriage and other long-term commitments if they were separated from sex entirely. So she isolates oxytocin, the "cuddle hormone," and creates a serum that blocks its release following intercourse, which allows any woman or gay man to view bedmates more objectively.
Some writers might use this as an excuse to parade endless servings of beefcake around the stage, but Allen restrains herself, focusing on only two of Marissa's paramours: Josh (Matt Alford), the geeky womanizer who lives down the hall, and Ted (Kevin Melrose), a sexual dynamo Marissa meets via Craigslist. Both men factor prominently in Marissa's scientific studies, with the business-minded Josh becoming her business partner in pursuit of the "straight male" demographic, and Ted the subject of Marissa's most rigorous (and, in one case she describes, gravity-defying) empirical investigation.
Of course, the two represent something more dramatically interesting still: opposing ends of Marissa's relationship spectrum. We see how her feelings for Josh grow from annoyance into respect and then to something deeper still as a result of the serum; whereas the endless, meaningless sex Marissa enjoys with Ted only exacerbates, and then explodes, the feelings she wanted to isolate. As long as Allen focuses on Marissa's give and take with the men, and its significance to both Marissa's project and the dating world in general (Marissa comes dangerously close to concluding that indiscriminate sex is actually destructive to the heart), Sex Curve maintains a buoyant sense of high-minded fun.
The other two characters cause some problems. Marissa's roommates, Robin (Tatianna Mott), a sex advice columnist, and Lucas (Neville Braithwaite), a gay go-go dancer, are not well developed — they provide extra surfaces off of which Marissa can bounce her ideas, but don't contribute much to the fabric of the play as a whole. Their lines are mainly restricted to barbed quips and gently wry observations that have an obligatory, things-are-too-serious feel. The performers do what they can with the roles, and the statuesque Mott comes across as a natural wit, but there's only so much that can be done with these characters.
But Marissa and her beaus are not always better off. Allen fires some decent shots with Josh, who's the one of the three who's most anxiously in pursuit of something, but much of their dialogue is so casual, and nonchalantly delivered, the actors seem to be making it up off the top of their heads, and not always without pauses or stumbles. This doesn't allow for robust characterizations, and none of them quite has the experience or personality to account for that deficit. Ted is particularly flat — a shame as his character is a rare twist on the theme of the sex-obsessed guy: one who slowly becomes addicted to commitment — almost like a glorified excuse to display the chiseled Melrose without his shirt (a costuming choice in effect for at least half of his onstage time).
The penultimate scene, in which all five characters and their competing views of love collide, likewise has promise that's punctured by circuitous babbling and unfocused action. Misfires like this, which happen consistently but not constantly throughout the play, stand out in large part because they make a damp slog out of what should be a firmly funny romp. But Allen's plotting and foundational concepts are so strong that you can't help but feel that time and additional testing will help bend Sex Curve's benefit curve even more sharply upward.