Sex Habits mocks spurious 1950s thinking on female sexuality at the Guthrie Lab
Playwright Julie Marie Myatt has fun taking a good hard poke (hmm) at a self-aggrandized, male psychoanalyst of the 1950s who pontificates on the sexual elements of a woman’s psyche in The Sex Habits of the American Woman. In the Guthrie Lab’s elegant production, directed by Michael Bigelow Dixon, the audience has fun, too. But I longed for Myatt’s wit to be sharper and for the butt of her satire, Dr. Fritz Tittels, to be less of a capital "T" type.
Myatt opens Sex Habits in 1950 on Victor Becker’s elegant period set that is both dated, yet clearly points the way towards modernism. The set serves as an apt metaphor for the play, in which two lonely and repressed 1950s women are trapped within the social mores of their time, yet break free of it in brief sexual encounters that anticipate the coming Sexual Revolution of the ‘60s.
Sex Habits debunks centuries of male fallacy about female sexuality, and it poses questions about loneliness - is it better to trapped in loneliness within a marriage, or is it better to be single and free to choose one’s loneliness?
Dr. Fritz Tittels is a zealous academic, and Becker emphasizes the doctor’s reliance on texts by building walls of books into the set. Fritz is an immigrant German psychoanalyst, who is married to Agnes, his bored but dutiful American wife. He’s a needy man, insecure, ambitious, autocratic and self-absorbed, and he is writing what he believes to be the defining tome on female sexuality. So self-absorbed is this egotistical man that he’s emotionally blind to the two women in his life, Agnes and their daughter, 35-year-old Daisy, whom they both write off as an old maid. Edgar Green is Fritz’s star student. He’s as ambitious as his mentor, but he is sensitive to women, and he’s attracted to Agnes. As Agnes awakens to unlikely love, Daisy flirts with, then represses, understanding of her own sexuality.
Intersecting with the 1950s scene on stage, a black and white video projects onto the set’s back wall, like a 1950s television screen, and documents a male, Kinsey-style interviewer asking Joy, a modern single woman, about her sexual life. For Joy, sex is as natural a part of life as a good meal. Joy, too, has a daughter, who is as disenchanted with her parent as Daisy is with both hers.
The frequent cuts to the video (by Heidi Edwards) are a technique that serves the play well. Not only is the video economical, since it makes switching scenes unnecessary but, because it purports to be a scientific documentary on female sexuality, it works as a modern parallel to Dr. Fritz Tittel’s scholarly endeavors that anchor the main action.
Director Bigelow Dixon draws good performances from his actors. Richard Ooms plays Dr. Fritz Tittels; he looks the part and affects a passable German accent. However, while playing this huge personality, Ooms sometimes feels like an actor who has been over directed, as when Fritz yaws and twists his mouth in an exaggerated way to signify his struggle to force words to fit his preposterous treatise, statements like, "Women don’t want orgasms; they want kitchenware." Just once, when Fritz looks at Agnes and sees that she’s beautiful, does Myatt allow him to become more than a cardboard cut-out.
Tana Hicken gives a wonderfully pitched performance as well-preserved, 60-something-year-old Agnes. At play’s opening, she looks very ‘50s in costume designer Marcia Dixcy Jory’s full-skirted outfits and French pleat hairdo. As Agnes allows herself to awaken to love, her manner and dress shift; she becomes sunnier, yet more reflective, and she chooses more womanly dress.
Kris L. Nelson turns in a nicely bright-eyed performance as enthusiastic Edgar Green, who genuinely likes women. I wondered if Edgar takes a literally hands-on approach with most of the women in his thriving practice! Edgar lives blissfully free of his conscience, even as he beds his admired mentor’s wife. Charity Jones finds Daisy’s anger and sharp-tongued frustration, and Sally Wingert shines as Joy, the sexually liberated woman of today, who we see on video.
I enjoyed Bigelow Dixon’s directorial touch of Agnes and Fritz’s twin beds, sliding on stage, vertical, from opposite sides of the stage for an amusing glimpse of Fritz’s functional love-making.
This is Sex Habits’ second airing on stage. It’s an engaging piece that I hope Myatt might continue to tweak and strengthen to make it an essential play.
The Sex Habits of American Women October 30 – November 21, 2004. Tuesdays – Saturdays 7:30 p.m. Sundays – 7:00 p.m. See web site for matinees. $22 - $30. Guthrie Lab, 105, North First Street, Street, Minneapolis. Tickets: 612-377-2224. www.guthrietheater.org.