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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

The Sex Habits of American Women

Also see Susan's review of Shenandoah

Sex Habits of American Women
Will Gartshore and Helen Hedman
The current production at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., The Sex Habits of American Women, is a comedy that attempts to juxtapose the societal repression of the 1950s against today’s comparative liberation of the sexes. Unfortunately, playwright Julie Marie Myatt keeps things on a surface level, although the Signature production benefits from the efforts of a fine cast.

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.

Signature Theatre
The Sex Habits of American Women

March 28th – May 7th
By Julie Marie Myatt
1950: Daisy Tittels: Teresa Castracane
Dr. Fritz Tittels: Ralph Cosham
Edgar Green: Will Gartshore
Agnes Tittels: Helen Hedman
Ruby Lawrence: Casie Platt
2004: Katie: Megan MacPhee
Joy: Amy McWilliams
Dan: Paul Morella
Directed by Michael Baron
3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive
Arlington, VA 22206
Ticket Information: 703-218-6500 or 1-800-955-5566 or www.signature-theatre.org


Photo: Carol Pratt


-- Susan Berlin


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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