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What's pornographic about Porn

AndrĂ¡s Visky's tale of the Romanian dictatorship is too true to be powerful

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Don't let the title mislead you. Porn has nothing to do with industrial sex fantasies. András Visky named his play after the alias jokingly conferred on his main character by the Securitate, communist Romania's secret police, who listen in even—perhaps especially—while she makes love. In fact, the woman they call Porn is a theater artist, considered worthy of surveillance because she's got the nerve to put on street performances of plays like The Bald Soprano, by Romanian expatriate Eugene Ionesco, and to distribute food and clothes to the audience of kids she calls her "little dirty ones." "If we are afraid," somebody says, "they leave us alone"; Porn has too much to do to stop and be afraid.

So, yes, the title is misleading with regard to the familiar commerce in orgasms.

Yet it's apt in lots of other ways. What's really pornographic about Porn is the death-in-life Visky's heroine is forced to endure as a subject of Nicolae Ceauşescu, the Romanian communist party boss who became the unlikely focus of a Stalinesque personality cult. It's autumn, 1989; Ceauşescu will be deposed and executed by the winter solstice. But in the meantime he's exercising all the paranoid prerogatives of a classic 20th-century despot. Porn is kept under observation by a creepy neighbor known as Skunk, whose reports to his handler increasingly paint her as a dedicated subversive rather than the creative spirit we see before us. Her lover is disappeared. And when she makes the mistake of having a troubled pregnancy, she becomes the prisoner of a medical establishment such as might've been imagined by Kafka's cruder, meaner, more down-market twin.

(According to Porn, Ceauşescu maintained a no-exceptions prohibition on abortion exactly like the one advocated by Paul Ryan, Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, and others. Watching this play gives you a sense of what would have to be done to enforce it. Securitate agents are posted in hospitals to guard against rogue doctors interested in inducing miscarriages.)

Although Porn is stylistically far from realistic, Visky tells us in his author's note that it's based on his own actual experiences and those of other Romanians. He's certainly got a vast and horrific fund of memories to draw on. One of his previous plays to reach Chicago, Juliet, derives from the fact that he spent a good part of his childhood living (that is, starving) in internal exile with his siblings and his mother while his father served a prison sentence for dissident activities. Porn makes use of his wife's own ill-fated pregnancy, among other things.

And that brings up another, unfortunate way in which Porn resembles porn. Years ago I sat in Cafe Balthazar in Paris and listened for at least a half hour as a white-haired American gentleman at the next table put the moves on a woman who was probably no more than 20 years old—which is to say, about 40 years his junior. (Apropos of nothing but the age differential and a desire to make things more interesting, I decided she was his daughter's college roommate.) The American was telling the young woman stories of his exploits during World War II. He had one in particular, about a buddy who got run over by a tank; it ended with the line, "And all that was left of him was a boot." The young woman looked at the American with a deeply sorrowful expression when he said that, so he found ways to say it again and again, any time he felt her attention wandering. "And all that was left of him was a boot" never failed to get her—or at least the sorrowful look—back.

There's an empathic trap that can snare both the storyteller and the listener when they're sharing a subject as fraught as true personal suffering. They fall into an almost Pavlovian exchange, like the old American and his table companion. It's utterly sincere, but ultimately becomes rote.

Visky and director Éva Patkó try to avoid the trap by resorting to antinaturalistic strategies like direct address to the audience, fractured narrative, and the use of video. But the playwright's understandable desire to be explicit about his connection to the material always threatens to drain it of its larger resonances and reduce it to nothing more than a sad, sad story, to which the audience can respond with a deeply sorrowful expression. Even monstrous things can become maudlin in the telling.

Porn is never quite maudlin, yet it never quite does the necessary job of shattering us either.

Still, that's no reason not to see this Theatre Y staging of it. Those antinaturalistic strategies can be pretty arresting—especially a certain a hall-of-mirrors video effect. And then there are the lead performances. Ezra Colón is delightful as Porn's bearish lover. The whole reason for the exercise, however, might as well be Melissa Lorraine as Porn herself. Lorraine is a storefront throwback to the age of stage divas. She doesn't even try to disappear into a role—she makes it hers by virtue of the extraordinary force and intelligence of her being. Completely present, Lorraine isn't just the most vivid thing in this show, but in the last dozen I've seen. I'd love to see her play, say, an unusually pixieish Mother Courage—but I swear I'd sit through anything she chose to perform.

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