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Perils of Porn

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MASTERPIECES

Stage Left Theatre

"Looking at pictures never hurt anyone," says a male character early in Sarah Daniels's Masterpieces; but Daniels sets out to prove otherwise. In her portrait of three married couples torn apart by the polarizing effect of pornography, Daniels seeks to establish a direct link between such "harmless" bourgeois habits as dirty jokes and skin magazines and clearly serious concerns such as violence and the breakdown of the family unit.

Rowena, the central character, is a young, attractive, liberal social worker settled in a happy (and, it is indicated, sexy) marriage to a well-educated, reasonably liberated fellow (he introduced her to The Female Eunuch). Rowena is distressed by her old friend Yvonne, a schoolteacher whose daily contact with working-class teenage boys seems to have embittered her beyond reason. The main cause of Yvonne's anger is how "men are taught to hate women"; as evidence, a boy who recently raped a girl is shown to have kept a collection of pornographic magazines.

Rowena herself has never so much as seen a copy of Playboy--one of many unbelievable details in Daniels's script--but when Yvonne shows her the skin mags she's confiscated from the young rapist, Rowena is almost instantaneously turned into an antiporn crusader; she also freezes up sexually, as Yvonne has already done. Completing Rowena's radicalization is her experience with Hilary, a lower-class unwed mother turned prostitute. Seeking to help Hilary out of her squalid life, Rowena arranges a clerical job for her with Yvonne's husband; but he--all too predictably--forces Hilary out of the job with his unwanted sexual attentions.

The final straw is Rowena's decision to see a "snuff film," in which a porn actress is tortured and murdered on-screen. On her way home from this horrifying experience, Rowena is approached threateningly by a man in the subway station and deliberately pushes him in front of an oncoming train. The rest of the play--whose action crosscuts cinematically back and forth in time--is taken up with Rowena's trial and imprisonment as a martyr to decency in an indecent, male-dominated society.

Daniels obviously means to stir up debate in her audiences; the emotions, actions, and ideas presented in Masterpieces--concluding with Rowena's gruesomely graphic description of the snuff film--are so intense that they can't help but dominate theatergoers' conversation after the performance.

The problem is that nothing on the stage is actually credible. The friction between men and women is so overstated, the men so impossibly and incessantly piggy, the women so excessive in their anger, and the consequences of Rowena's peek into porn so extreme, that we can't ever believe any of it. As a result, Daniels's argument against pornography comes off instead as a Reefer Madness-style depiction of the dangers of obsession--Rowena's obsession with porn, not porn itself, is what consumes her, wrecks her marriage, drives her to murder, ruins her life.

Yet the power of Masterpieces is such that it transcends its illogicality, or even absorbs it: what Daniels has put on the stage is a nightmare view of life, and especially of sexuality, in a world where antifemale brutality lurks under the surface of liberal permissiveness. The play is permeated with antisexual feelings; a palpable disgust is present in the scenes of sexual connection between the men and the women, in clear contrast to the warm, sisterly innocence of the interactions between Rowena, Yvonne, and Rowena's mother, Jennifer. Interestingly, the most deeply felt expression of love in the play is Hilary's affection for her child--begotten out of wedlock, as Hilary informs us in a troubling but hilarious monologue, only after every form of birth control (including abortion) was tried and discarded as inefficient, inconvenient, dangerous, or immoral. The man who fathered the kid is long gone and forgotten, expendable both in Hilary's life and in the play's schema.

As it happens, Hilary's monologue, the best-written part of the show, is also the best performed: Kate Goehring is simply marvelous in the role, full of life and reality. If the rest of the cast (including such strong actors as Jacqueline Kim, Catherine Marcroft, Eamon Hunt, Dorothy Milne, Randy Colborn, Debra Rodkin, and the always superb Harry Lennix) seem stuck in one-dimensional ruts, it's likely more the fault of the play than of the cast (which, interestingly, is casually multiracial despite the play's being set in an upper-middle-class white milieu). Christine Sumption's direction and Julie K. Martino's lighting and set design are awkwardly inefficient, though Sumption surely must share credit with costume designer Nora-Lee Luttrell for the production's intelligent use of clothing to guide us in and out of the characters' emotional changes.

First produced in England in 1983--when the easy availability of serious sleaze such as "video nasties" was a pressing, heavily publicized issue in London--Masterpieces is a passionate play whose deep flaws seem almost defiant. Analyze me! the script seems to say. Criticize me! But you can't ignore me. And, indeed, we can't.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Audrey Heller.

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