Bill is a burly construction worker, Jessica a soft-voiced office drudge. They say they haven't had sex in four years--they've settled for exchanging fantasies and game playing a la Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Though they come close to arousing each other, as Jessica says, "Close doesn't mean anything. Close is the same as not at all."
After Jessica lures mild-mannered Arthur to their pad we discover just how twisted this couple have become. A marketing executive who abandoned poetry to pursue a vice-presidency, Arthur is stuck in a corporate rut, but he gets the change he needs. Waving a gun (containing blanks), Jessica and Bill tie him up and tell him he's the cure for their endangered sex life. (Couldn't they just rent a tape?) His presence sparks their libidos: they need a witness to prove their love is still there.
When they finally set Arthur free, he's reluctant to go: these supposed free spirits made him taste his white-collar loneliness. And after he goes, his presence lingers: Jessica imagines leaving Bill for Arthur and then, for love of Bill, killing herself. Bill promises to love her so hard this will never happen. We're left to take his word for it.
Most curious about Paul Weitz's Captive is how many other plays this hour-long one-act resembles. Besides Albee's masterpiece it hints at the comic sadism of Mark Medoff's When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?, the shock effects of Paul Prince's In Apartment 3D and William Mastrosimone's Extremities, and the sexual dysfunction of Raymond Barry's Once in Doubt and of the movie Sid and Nancy. There's even a touch of Pinter in the keyhole view of other people's sexual scenarios, and the language is as wildly overblown as in John Patrick Shanley's baroque rhapsodies.
The mind may rush to discover resemblances, but the play never holds its own. One problem is that Weitz hasn't built many mysteries into his plot, and any disclosures take us no deeper into the characters than we've guessed already. Captive goes where we'd expect after Albee: the game must end so that truths can be faced. Also, the way Weitz glosses over the ugliness of the kidnapping leaves an unpleasant aftertaste--if it's really for Arthur's own good, we take a long time to see that, and so does Arthur. And if Bill and Jessica really need to go this far to spark their romance, we need to find out why much sooner than we do.
But Weitz does know how to mix sensuality with psychology. Karen Gundersen's staging--a midwest premiere by Splinter Group--offers more of the former: John Colella as Bill and Teresa Hynes as Jessica seem a tad too erotic to have reached their purported dead end. In particular Bill comes across as too sexually confident to be recruiting strangers to cure his impotence. Wife swapping, maybe, but not kidnapping for kinks. Hynes plays the tension well, appearing rational even as she gets crazy. But her threats against Arthur seem tentative, as if she's tired of her game with Bill. When she and Colella get down to love they're more persuasive than the lines indicate. But if this couple are truly addicted to their dangerous manipulation, we need to see that at other times too.
As Arthur, Lawrence Peters mainly just reacts; even so, he needs to work harder to show the changes his character undergoes. Peters plays him as if his main motivation is to flee, so when he can we wonder why he doesn't. Clearly Weitz intended us to see Arthur's neediness before this point.
By the end it's hard to care about Jessica and Bill's predicament because we know too little about what went wrong and what could make it right. But we suspect that if it involves abducting strangers, the cure is worse than the disease.
Matt O'Brien's set design adds ghoulish touches to a conventional apartment--a skull wearing a jaunty bowler and an inflatable-doll version of the woman in Edvard Munch's The Scream. Arthur could never say he wasn't warned.
Continuing a Reader tradition--the air-conditioning alert--I have to say there's none at Splinter Group and little circulation. On a cool night it can steam inside, and on a hot one it might boil.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Clark.