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Heterosexuals
part of
The New York International Fringe Festival
(FringeNYC)

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Heterosexuals
Anne Teutschel and Elizabeth McNelis.
Photo by Lee Papa.

When the most memorable thing about a play that deals exclusively with sex is one speech delivered by one actress, there is either something very right with the actress or something very wrong with the play. In the case of Lee Papa’s play Heterosexuals, which is being presented at the New York International Fringe Festival, it is an unequivocal case of the latter.

Not that Elizabeth McNelis doesn’t do everything she can to sell it — and reaps considerable profits by volume alone. The monologue in question, you see, comprises almost the entire third scene of the play, and a full third of the show’s 90-minute running time. Yes, for half an hour, McNelis sits at a table, across from another woman (Anne Teutschel), revealing every imaginable explicit detail of her sexual life. Partners, orgasms, specific examples of male and female anatomy, her racy blog (with a name I dare not print), the online game she’s developed (ditto), and even — as the startling centerpiece of it all — a pop-up book full of colorful, three-dimensional cartoons relating all the condoms, periods, and abortions she’s known. That McNelis could learn the speech, let alone unleash it with such ironclad conviction, speaks highly about her drive and talent.

Yet not a word of it is even moderately steamy. It’s sex talk for the sake of sex talk, “shock” for the sake of shocking, and as such manages neither sexiness nor surprise. It is Papa’s entire play in miniature: something potentially arousing that, by virtue of its very familiarity and volume, becomes more wearying than erotic.

That is, after all, essentially what led the play’s sole man (Jeff Kreisler, also appearing in another Fringe show, Get Rich Cheating) into the arms of another woman (McNelis) in the first place. Years of marriage has made sex with his wife (Teutschel) rote and ordinary, and he longs to once again have the unpredictable, dangerous sex he relished in his youth. What he doesn’t know is that that’s what his wife wants as well — but neither knows how to get it from a life that’s become all about following prescribed patterns. So when the opportunity comes to hit on, and then hit the sack with, his wife’s friend, doesn’t he have to take it? And then, of course, doesn’t he have to live with the consequences?

Unfortunately, Papa treats all this in a noncommittal way that makes the play seem more like an anthropology lecture than a searing sexual drama. As the title hints, this is a detached, observational outing that, like anonymous love-making, wants the effect without the hardest work. The characters don’t have names, for one: These are any, perhaps all, straight people. And the dialogue, soggy rather than crackling, rings as though it’s been composed specifically to embrace every generality and offend no one. During the key exchanges (McNelis and Kreisler’s opening game of “which person of your own gender would you sleep with,” McNelis’s monologue, and a confrontation between Kreisler and Teutschel later), you don’t believe anyone has actually done any of the things they claim. It sounds like inflated locker-room braggadocio, not soul-stripping confession.

As a result, the actors — despite McNelis’s tough-as-driftwood charm, and Kreisler’s and Teutschel’s effusive, buttoned-down likability — don’t really connect with each other or with you, which puts a deep chill on even the hottest scenes. Papa’s staging is effectively claustrophobic, trapping various couples in the cramped confines of the tiny Cherry Pit stage, but it’s not enough to convince you these are real people with real cravings and not checklists of hot-button topics they ripped from the pages of Cosmo.

That’s why the only time a heart gets the better of its owner is the evening’s highlight. And it happens during that marathon monologue — just not with McNelis. As Teutschel sits, listening to McNelis’s dirty diatribe for countless minutes, she plows through a huge plate of salad, each bite — and each word from McNelis — bringing her closer to desperation. Her reactions, at first encouraging smiles and grimaces but eventually becoming aching stillness, convey far more about the human emotional condition than McNelis’s no-holds-barred tour of the reproductive system. Teutschel’s world is imploding, and she, McNelis, and we all know it, though the flood of McNelis’s words continues unabated. That is truly titillating, and riveting, theatre. The rest of Heterosexuals: not so much.


VENUE #14: The Cherry Pit
Thu 19 @ 2 Sat 21 @ 10 Mon 23 @ 8 Wed 25 @ 2
Tickets online at FringeNYC Tickets