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The Sensuality Party

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 27, 2016

Jake Horowitz
Photo by Hunter Canning

When theatre folk want to mock either the explosion of off-color language in the theatre or those "puritanical" souls who fret about such things, their lead go-to guy for the past few decades has been David Mamet. Understandably so—he has a Gatling gun way with an expletive. But one wonders if future generations will instead turn to Justin Kuritzkes, based solely on his new play that's being produced by The New Group, The Sensuality Party. If so, they have a good case.

I cannot remember, across my many years of theatregoing, any play that depended on the F-word more heavily than this one. To be fair, Kuritzkes typically uses it in its verb form, as innocently as it's possible to use, I suppose, rather than an outright curse. Still, by my count it's deployed 136 times in the 95-minute play and 79 times in the opening scene alone! "And" and "the" are vying for placement that good.

Does this matter? Yes and no. Like it or not, that word and the behavior associated with it still carry a tremendous amount of power; playwrights know that or they wouldn't use it. (Sorry to invoke Mamet again, but he's a master of exploring just what may be done with it.) But used the way Kuritzkes does, the word lacks any strength or substance: It feels either like a gimmick, an attempt to strip the word of any influence or importance, or both. Fair enough. In either case, the question then becomes: What does he do with it?

What indeed. The title derives, as you can probably already guess from the in-use vernacular, from a Saturday shindig held by six friends during their freshman year in college. "We thought 'orgy' sounded vulgar," explains Speaker (Jake Horowitz) early on. As with many things here, irony is heaped all around that statement. During his opening speech (which runs a full half-hour), Speaker describes how the group participated in their love-in, which started off skirting the ceilings of ecstasy but ended somewhere much darker when Barry and Alison's, uh, lovemaking became violent and apparently non-consensual while Todd rescued Allison, Linda and Stevie looked on in horror, and Speaker masturbated to the spectacle.

Katherine Folk-Sullivan
Photo by Hunter Canning

Speaker's exposition lays forth the rules of the game, but also presents only one perspective of only one portion of what transpired. The remaining hour or so of the play not only gives the others their say, but lets them consider the themes in their own terms: Linda and Stevie (Layla Khoshnoudi and Catherine Combs) riff on fantasies, with Linda's markedly violent; Todd (Rowan Vickers) narrates the aftermath of the attack, and offers some disturbing insights into the school's open treatment of sex and sexuality; and finally, Barry and Allison (Jeff Cuttler and Katherine Folk-Sullivan) weigh in on how the experience changed them, and led them down paths that, however against their wills, keep locking them together.

In merely this form, The Sensuality Party might have sufficed as a kind of young-adult Rashomon with a high-verisimiltude gimmick: It's being staged in theaters and student centers at various area schools through May 13. (I saw it at Pace University in Manhattan, but stops at Pace's Westchester campus, NYU, Brooklyn College, and more are coming up in short order.) If the writing has a definite titillation, even gratuity, factor, it raises enough issues to be considered basically educational. And though director Danya Taymor has given it the leanest of imaginable bare-bones stagings (at Pace, everyone except Vickers delivered their lines while sitting on couches in the student union), it plays well enough for what it is; and though the performers are hamstrung by the entirely narrative dialogue, which is almost exclusively in the past tense and thus precludes any real action, each gives you the sense of a lost person looking for genuine intimacy in all the wrong places.

It's outside this core that things get dicey. September 11 factors prominently in the story; that's the date the party took place, the original occurrence haunts most of their dreams, and, in the most gasp-inducing moment of the night, Todd articulates in lurid detail a sex game that echoes the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. (I beg of you, don't ask.) Kuritzkes seems to be attempting to link feelings of loss, rage, and violation to that event and posit the impact (or utter lack thereof) it will have on lives down the road. Continued references to the revolutionaries of the 1960s further bolster this idea.

But because the connections are so tenuous and unconvincing (I'm guessing, for example, that you're not supposed to figure out how old the characters would have been in 2001), Kuritzkes doesn't deepen the sex so much as cheapen the tragedy. And that gives The Sensuality Party an icky, exploitative feel that no graphical description of the group's myriad sex acts manages. If Kuritzkes has succeeded in showing the physical and emotional carnage that can result from wallowing in soullessness, he hasn't given his play the soul it needs to be any more relevant than the 11 dozen F-bombs that are dropped during it.

The Sensuality Party
Through May 13
Monday, April 25 - Wednesday, April 27 at 7pm: Pace University NYC Campus
Thursday, April 28 at 3:30pm & 7pm: Pace University Westchester Campus
Friday, April 29 at 7pm: Gallatin School, New York University
Monday, May 2 - Wednesday, May 4 at 7pm: Brooklyn College
Thursday, May 5 at 2pm & 7pm: Lehman College
Monday, May 9 at 7pm: College of Staten Island
Tuesday, May 10 at 7pm: Stellar Adler Studio of Acting
Wednesday, May 11 at 2:30pm & 7pm: LaGuardia Community College
Thursday, May 12 - Friday, May 13 at 7pm: Baruch College
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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