Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 1998
You know you're getting old when...
You know you're getting old when you walk out of the theatre saying "When I was young we knew how to do sex and nudity on the stage. Not like these politically correct young whipper-snappers today. No siree. In my day we threw off our clothes and danced naked by the footlights, simulating sex with the best of 'em."
And you know, its true. I began my theatre-going days when "Hair" and "Oh Calcutta!" trod the boards. My college staged a nude play (I was invited to "dress rehearsal") Before I was eighteen I had seen more rapes and couplings on stage than I had seen on television and in the movies combined.
So when Oldcastle billed "Sweet Talk" as "erotic" and warned that it contained "adult language" and "nudity" I thought, "Ah, the good old days." Wrong. I would hardly have thought it possible to set a play in the office of a phone sex service and the bedroom of one of its clients and come up with such a sterile show. But playwright Peter Lefcourt has succeeded.
Really, what Lefcourt needs to do with his script is sit down and make a decision. Does he want to write a play about two lonely people making a deeply erotic connection in the only disease-free venue left to them? Or does he want a viable commercial show? In my opinion he has leaned way too far towards the commercial end of the spectrum, and the result is a show that is unsatisfying to all concerned.
Delilah (Kathleen Turco-Lyon) works the midnight to noon shift at Sweet Talk, a phone sex service which, we are led to believe, has a prominent ad on the back cover of "Screw" magazine. "John" (Michael Nichols), whose last name is Samson, has a small unkempt apartment somewhere in the big, anonymous city. He sees the ad, and calls. Over the course of Delilah's 12 hour shift they engage in elaborate fantasies together - fantasies that are more romantic and erotic than directly sexual. At first Samson's insistence on something other than the standard anonymous sex fantasy disturbs and annoys Delilah. Then she finds an outlet for an untapped longing deep inside of herself and allows herself to be swept away.
This is a charming premise. Sex is 90% psychological, and here is a woman who has turned that most intimate part of the act into a job. Seeing her reclaim her own sexuality ought to be a wonderful erotic moment. Turco-Lyon is an appealing performer who understands Delilah well and gives a sensitive portrayal.
But the male side of this equation is more problematic. For one thing, it is hard to imagine that a bachelor who buys "Screw" (if you're not familiar with the publication believe me, it is not for the faint of heart) and calls phone sex lines would really have a romantic romp in Budapest and couple of choruses of "Singing in the Rain" on his mind. But even if he did, it seems most peculiar that he would refrain from touching himself in the privacy of his own home during 12 whole hours of erotic talk. And it is down-right ludicrous that he would make such a call and then use words like "whazoo" for penis and phrases like "make the water pistol go squirt" for orgasm. That is not my idea of "adult language." That is Lefcourt playing it safe so that the show will be more commercially viable.
Nichols has the thankless job of trying to bring this odd man to life. Director James Goldstone keeps him bounding vigorously over his half of designer Kenneth Mooney's functional set in a frantic attempt to keep Samson too busy to masturbate. And Mooney sees to it that Nichols' manly chest is kept in prominent display at all times. But Lefcourt has handed them an impossible task.
And then there is The Nude Scene. It is Delilah who strips down, but it is not at all clear why, other than the promise of seeing an attractive actress naked may sell a few more tickets. Don't waste your money. Lighting designer Maria Rosenblum has the lights down so low by the time Turco-Lyon drops her last garment that you can barely see her silhouette, and then she plunges you into utter darkness before anything untoward can happen. If there was ever gratuitous nudity, this is it.
Which brings me to the blatant sexism of Lefcourt's play. Why is it only the woman who gets naked and masturbates on stage? Because this show was written by a man and this is what he and other men imagine the women on the other end of the phone sex line do. This is what he and other men will buy tickets to see. Well, its sexist and unrealistic and frankly degrading to a good actress like Turco-Lyon.
Take it from a child of the '60's - if you're going to get naked, do it in broad daylight with pride. If you want to hide in the dark, keep your clothes on, no one can see you anyway. If you're going to write a play about sex, its okay to use dirty words. And its okay to show both men and women expressing their sexuality.
"Sweet Talk" runs through September 5 at the Oldcastle Theatre Company which performs in the Bennington Center for the Arts at the intersection of Route 9 and Gypsy Lane in Bennington. Call 802-447-0564 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1998