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My First Time

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Bill Dawes, Cydnee Welburn, Josh Heine, and Kathy Searle.
Photo by Drew Geraci.

A theatre artist's greatest responsibility is to make the first time feel like the only time. That happens late in My First Time, Ken Davenport's woozy confessional show about people's first sexual experiences, based on stories found on Peter Foldy and Craig Stuart's website. But it comes from an unlikely source: the audience.

Taking their seats at the New World Stages theater where My First Time just opened, patrons are presented with an 11-question survey about their own first times: at what age, where did it happen, the partner's first name, and so on. The survey promises no one will be called onstage or "called on stage [or] singled out," but every time the four performers onstage (Bill Dawes, Josh Heine, Kathy Searle, and Cydnee Welburn) brandish those blue cards to rattle off a few responses, you can feel and hear nervousness and excitement ripple throughout the house. It's only the last time, however, that the answers can truly approach theatre.

The question: "If your first sexual partner were here right now, what would you say to him/her?" The answers at the performance I attended were a surprisingly potent mixture of tender and hilarious, including everything from "Why didn't you bring a condom? You made me resort to that stupid foam stuff, and it made a lot of noise" and "Now that we're older and know what we're doing, let's try again just for fun," to "Give me the child support; you owe me $70,000!" and "It's not you, it's me. I'm gay." The most bizarre? "Sorry about the bald spot."

Some, including the last, sent the actors and audience alike into paroxysms of confusion and laughter, creating a communion of people moved, amused, and astonished by the lasting impact of this key rite of passage. It's the show's most telling, ingratiating moment because it elicits comedy, tragedy, and even romance merely by asking the audience to reveal their own, most intimate truths. The rest of My First Time, however, struggles at finding much that's theatrical or memorable about this most memorable of experiences.

Writer-director Davenport stations the actors on and about four white stools and has them recite, with a minimum of fuss and even less staging, reminiscences culled directly from the website: a young man whose deflowering occurred at a radio station the instant the night's programming ceased, a young woman coerced by a gang of friends one summer whose Coca-Cola contraceptives were not especially helpful, a chance encounter on a Washington, D.C., subway, and silent subterfuge in a basement. There are dozens more, cobbled together as part of a general timeline that begins at expectation, passes through the deed itself, and eventually arrives at the aftermath of the event.

Though Davenport has torn apart and reassembled the individual pieces to give the evening a pleasing, uh, rhythm, the show is ultimately more staid than enlightening. A few sections that transform a handful of words or sentences into poetry, most notably the (ahem) climactic scene recreating the act during a blackout, are fairly feeble attempts to inject energy into a show that, despite its potentially titillating content, is sorely lacking in excitement.

At least the stories are treated with the required amounts of humor, reverence, and respect. When Dawes adopts the thunderous twang of a Southern fire-and-brimstone preacher in a montage of the site's more religious and less tolerant commenters, the show veers closer to parody than it ever dares elsewhere. Isolated moments do stand out: Heine and Dawes weigh in with two soberingly different perspectives of rape, and Searle's tale of a girl who gave her virginity to her dying brother is every bit as moving as it is discomforting.

Whether any of this satisfies a need deeper than an immediate, voyeuristic thrill ride down memory lane is a question neither Davenport nor the actors are able to answer. The website itself is a curious cross between an adult bookstore and a psychiatrist's office, with the veracity of many entries so open to question that you can't help but wonder how believable anything else in the show actually is.

Except of course for those cards, which are too weird and wild to be false. Listening to the audience's answers to those questions, particularly the last one, you're reminded of the glorious incongruities, uncertainties, and delightful diversions of life, things the scripted parts of My First Time just don't capture as well.

My First Time
New World Stages / Stage 5, 340 West 50th Street Between 8th and 9th Avenues
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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