Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
The Sex Habits of American Women
Also see Susan's review of Shenandoah
Myatt has explained that she took the inspiration for her play from a real book with the same title, published in 1951 by Fritz Wittels, M.D. One immediate warning flag is that she changes the name of her fictionalized author from Wittels to the suggestive Tittels, although none of the well-bred characters comments on it.
As depicted by Myatt and crisply directed by Michael Baron, Dr. Fritz Tittels (Ralph Cosham) is a smugly self-absorbed psychotherapist, convinced that he has discovered the secrets of women (one example of his insight: "For a woman, love is the screw that opens her Pandora's box") when he doesn't even understand his wife of 47 years Agnes (Helen Hedman) or his unmarried 35-year-old daughter Daisy (Teresa Castracane). He also pontificates to his former student Edgar Green (Will Gartshore), himself a successful therapist but not someone that Fritz would ever accept as close to an equal.
Agnes, meanwhile, is a very youthful-looking 65, and she's coping with life by shopping, drinking and spending time with a special friend. Just about all the characters anesthetize themselves with alcohol fairly continuously, except for Daisy's friend Ruby Lawrence (Casie Platt), a sweet, clueless young woman who adores her husband who isn't home very much and dotes on her baby.
Interspersed with the scenes of the Tittels and their friends are videotaped interviews by an unseen reporter (Paul Morella) with Joy (Amy McWilliams), a contemporary single mother with a teenage daughter (Megan MacPhee). Myatt intends to show how things have and have not changed in the lives of women, but the device never really has a coherent purpose, even with a last-minute attempt to tie the two stories together.
The actors manage to keep things interesting even when the script doesn't give them much support. Hedman conveys Agnes' conflicted attitudes through her expressive face and wide eyes, and Cosham occasionally allows Fritz to set aside his pomposity and react like any other person.
The characters often behave in ways familiar from 1950s television: Agnes never wears anything but high heels, even when she's vacuuming the living room rug, and she and Fritz sleep in twin beds. Michael Carnahan has designed a richly detailed set packed with era-appropriate details, such as a burnt orange sofa in a sunken, fieldstone-trimmed living room, bordered by a wall divider decorated with "exotic" knickknacks. The lighting design by Mark Lanks similarly strikes familiar chords, along with Alejo Vietti's full-skirted shirtwaist dresses, maternity blouses with deep side pleats, and men's three-piece suits.