Fucking Men struggles with onstage intimacy realness | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Fucking Men struggles with onstage intimacy realness

Instead, it settles for some bad fake interpretive-dance sex.

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The sexual act is hard to get across onstage. Directors have had to unlearn all the old ways it was once done. Billowing drapery, the dimming of lights, a sudden curtain: that entire evasive language is old hat, as obsolete a thing now as barrel staves and buggy whips.

It wasn't always like that. When the Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler staged his ten-act play Reigen, better known as La Ronde, in Berlin in 1921, the result was a mob scene. There were rumblings that this was a pornographic play about linked courses of infidelity by an obscure Jew who combined undisguised sedition with inexcusable snark about the upper-class spread of syphilis. On opening night, there were armed members of the Anti-Semitic League for Protection and Defense in attendance. And to the audience's shock, there was sex in La Ronde —though its only visible trace was the modest curtain and blackout that divided each respective act in half, like Hogarth's Before and After. The depth of Schnitzler's psychological insight in the play impressed the mature Freud, but the run itself fell through after members of the audience rioted at the opening, sabotaging it. La Ronde was instantly banned.

In the text, Schnitzler indicated each of the blackouts with five simple dashes. La Ronde has since been adapted numerous times. Most productions "fill in" the notorious dashes with greater or lesser amounts of explicit fucking. Joe DiPietro's 2008 version, one of several adaptations on gay themes to appear in recent years, is showing now at Pride Films and Plays, abrasive title and all. It maps Schnitzler's plot onto ten hookups between males in present-day New York City: a soldier and a gay escort in a public park, the soldier and a graduate student at a bathhouse, the graduate student and a college kid he tutors at the kid's home, and on down the line, until the escort reappears for a quickie with a prominent closeted power broker. The tripartite scene structure is retained, with the unwelcome addition of fake interpretive-dance sex in the middle.

These soundtracked passages of almost uniformly inept Meisner capoeira are all the more grating because the interactions on either side of them are so vibrant. See the hot, hilarious hotel scene between married Jack (Jay Espano) and a nameless bartender who moonlights in porn (Roy Samra). Samra has impeccable timing, both as a comedian (with one unforgettable bit in particular about this thing "[he] did with his tongue on this guy's balls") and as a shapeshifter (he can go from porn-star bravado to quavering bundle of nerves on a dime). He's also the one member of the cast who I could say brought his character's body into the movement portions. The rest of them just looked like actors trying to remember their choreography.

Jack, a traveling businessman, is HIV positive. He lies to Samra's bartender about this at first. He then comes clean. Nobody in this play keeps a secret from anyone else for very long. Everybody in La Ronde, by contrast, is a practiced and inveterate liar, even about his or her possible infections. Theater might well be defined, along the lines of Schnitzler and another of his adapters, Eric Bentley—whose distinguished gay version of La Ronde antedates DiPietro's by more than 20 years—as "bodies with secrets." Flouting that ironic dogma by making these men so open, intimate, and forthright in the scenes with dialogue is perhaps what makes the ham-fisted coyness of the sex scenes here so doubly disappointing.

Then again, everything about sex in today's plays feels like a cop-out somehow, since such a premium abides elsewhere in theater on the authentic, the intimate, the skin-to-skin contact, all except here, between penetration and climax, when things are most real. And audiences, who go to the theater for flesh and entropy and occasionally get it, have come to hate "using their imaginations" at plays, both when it comes to sex and in general. They want the same thing the men want in this play, which they also call "intimacy"; and the first rule of intimacy, whether in the bedroom or between a play and its spectators, is for there to be, to the best of everyone's ability, nothing secret at all.

There will always be secrets, of course. The question is always how overt to make them: when to draw back the curtain, and when the action absolutely must stay concealed in order for the play's desired illusions—whether of love, spontaneity, or what have you—to take effect.   v

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