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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 18, 2016

Sarah Jones
Photo by Joan Marcus

To watch Sarah Jones work is to be in awe of her. Through nothing more than her exhaustively intricate physicality and pinpoint-precise vocal manipulation, she can create a bevy of people seemingly as vast as (and in some cases vaster than) whatever audience she is playing in front of. Any age, any gender, any ethnicity, any anything else—or even everything else—and she can make it happen, often in scant milliseconds. Of all the stage artists whose chosen medium is the one-person play, Jones stands alone as a uniquely gifted interpreter of the endless swath of diversity, color, and craziness we call humanity.

Though Jones's big breakthrough was Bridge & Tunnel Off-Broadway 12 years ago (it premiered on Broadway in 2006), judging by her latest show, Sell/Buy/Date at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II studio space, time has only sharpened her abilities. Jewish, Caribbean, Irish, Russian, Southern—she does them all, in rapid succession, so much so that some of them even have conversations with each other that sound as real and as effortless as if two different actors were actually speaking with each other. And that she keeps it up, and keeps it fresh, for upwards of 90 minutes of uninterrupted performance is its own magic trick, as delightful and unpredictable as you'll find from the best sleight-of-hand artists out there.

It's undeniably thrilling to watch Jones vanish into so many people as completely as she does; she's so convincing that when she uses her own voice during the curtain call speech, it lands with an oddly foreign ring. But Sell/Buy/Date as a piece of writing is considerably less captivating. Set at some indeterminate point in the future, it presents us with Dr. Serene Campbell (veddy British), who is guiding us through a series of "bio-empathetic resonant technology" (aka BERT) recordings captured across several decades starting in 2017. These, Serene promises, will allow us to not just hear the words of those with valuable or interesting perspectives on the subject of sex work of all kinds, from consumers to producers of pornography to prostitutes to victims of unimaginable abuse, but will let us feel exactly what they did once upon a time.

And... that's it. There's a minor-league subplot involving Serene's mother, who has her own connection to this topic, but for the most part Jones is content flipping from the first-time porn viewer to the philosophical pole-dancing feminist to the bachelor-partying frat boy who sees nothing wrong with killing strippers in Grand Theft Auto to the excitable pimp, and on and on. Each new personality has some new point of view to contribute, some new shading to add to a constantly developing portrait of the way people all over the world view professional sex of all stripes from both inside and outside its various interlocking communities.

They do not, however, add much else. The sheer number of figures Jones portrays prevents her from delving too deeply into any of them, which gives the show a choppy quality that doesn't help it say much that hasn't already been said. Once you know most of the women were exploited as girls, that the trade provides job opportunities to some folks who wouldn't have many other opportunities, and that a lot of what's being sold reinforces commonly held stereotypes and prejudices, there's not much further for Jones to go. There's nothing groundbreaking in the content. Worse, once someone has made his or her appearance, it's time to shuffle back to Serene's database and remain forever silent from then on, which only makes the evening's already-episodic structure even more diffuse.

It's all beautifully staged (by Carolyn Cantor) on a set (by Dane Laffrey, lighted by Eric Southern) that offers a comfortably technological vibe. Ultimately, though, it suffered from exactly the same weaknesses and limitation of scope and ambition that I've always thought Bridge & Tunnel did. It's not a storytelling session so much as a masquerade ball, and not so much riveting theatre as a party trick. Jones is less interested in developing and crafting ideas than she is in conducting a survey course of inch-thick character studies. That's one thing when you're doing an extended riff on New York's underserved poetic underclass; it's something else when you pursue something that's inherently weightier and you conspicuously avoid adding any new weight of your own.

As a result, the plot, such as it is, develops so reluctantly that it's no surprise when it climaxes in a journey to nowhere, and serves up a revelation that changes nothing about how we see the world or even the people we've met during Jones's whirlwind tour. She plays everyone with such total conviction, you want the full picture to be as detailed, as big, and as meaningful as each of its individual elements. But because what Jones is doing never seems to be remotely as important as how she does it, Sell/Buy/Date lingers in the memory not as a powerful exploration of charged, complex issues but a scintillating acting showcase that, in every other way, expires almost as soon as it begins.

Through November 13
The Studio at Stage II, 131 West 55th Street
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