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The Mating Dance

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THE MATING DANCE

Torso Theatre

Everything that The Mating Dance, an alleged comedy by James F. Engelhardt, wants to accomplish could have been pulled off in a swift Second City sketch. Instead, Engelhardt repeats for more than an hour and a half the play's unoriginal premise--that sexual manipulation can work both ways. Worse, Billy Bermingham's staging of this Torso Theatre world premiere props up this weak joke with so much lethargic naturalism that Engelhardt's farce loses its initial erratic charm and turns tedious and mean.

As its name implies, The Mating Dance is a spoof of sexual game playing. That's all it aims at, except when it mocks California nutsos, so it plays like an extended Playboy joke. Sandi is a cocktail-lounge hostess who lives in a very orange apartment in (where else?) Orange County, where she drinks (what else?) screwdrivers and eats (of course) orange sherbet. Jeff, a writer who recently got Sandi when he dialed a wrong number and then was seduced by her on the phone, drops by to see this sexpot.

Dressed in virginal white, this lonely out-of-towner has never met anyone like hot-to-trot Sandi. An apricot-hued menace straight out of Fatal Attraction, Sandi proceeds to confuse Jeff by repeatedly blowing hot and cold. Urging him to become an "Orange County cowboy" like the pretentious dudes she lays and leaves, Sandi leads Jeff on. Then she pushes him away. Suddenly she shrieks, "Don't hit me!" Then--she thrives on rejection--she accuses this bewildered stranger of ugly jealousy. (You saw it all in Diane Keaton's passive-aggressive librarian in Looking for Mr. Goodbar.)

After her ferocious foreplay drives the now-naked Jeff to bursting, Sandi decides she's no longer aroused; his half-hearted sadism didn't trigger her sex drive. (This one makes up the rules as she plays.) That's when Carl, Sandi's sexually frustrated husband, bursts in to bellow "You die!" and to terrorize the guilty pair by wildly swinging a big hunting knife.

His manhood threatened (he fears his bad-mouthing colleagues at the gas company will mock him), Carl can't decide whether to stab Sandi or Jeff. (The seemingly endless menace that follows is neither scary nor funny, just seemingly endless.) In a sex-crazed soliloquy Carl indulges in a fantasy about the guilty couple's illicit sex that's much more erotic than real life ever permits. Stripping, Carl forces the now-willing Sandi (who is cooing "Fuck me, but please kill me") to service him. As Carl salaciously cuts off her panties, a bug-eyed Jeff escapes through the window. (Some people have all the luck.)

Two weeks later Jeff returns like Glenn Close on a mission. Clad in black and carrying a symbolically long pistol, he has become the predatory "Orange County cowboy" Sandi asked for (or did she?). Reversing the first act's polarities, Jeff now abuses Sandi and Carl; Carl and Jeff even exchange lines they'd said earlier. But Sandi's reaction, alas, is one more variation on the prick-tease theme: "Please don't kill me--plug me instead."

In the end there's a huge knock at the door--from yet another irate husband. Ionesco-like, the farce will supposedly go on ad infinitum and ad nauseam.

For its first 20 minutes--until the rampant misogyny becomes poisonous and Carl bursts in to turn the plot into a male version of Extremities--this play shows a scintilla of promise. Engelhardt ably spoofs romantic cliches--"Don't spoil our perfect moment" accompanies a literal put- down--and he knows how to make sex hunger as ludicrous and erotic as life makes it. But weighed down with clumsy double entendres, heavy-handed non sequiturs ("Don't argue with him--he works for the gas company"), xenophobic slams directed at Libyans, gratuitous slurs directed at gays, and repeated attempts to make rape look like fun, Engelhardt's sophomoric concoction collapses. All we really wind up with is a tale about a nymphomaniac having her panties cut off by a slob with a big hunting knife.

Considering this material, it's appropriate that Torso Theatre's new space was once an X-rated bookstore, the Second Story Emporium. Pathetically enough, the bookstore's entertainment was cheaper and cleaner than this smarmy stuff.

Bermingham's slow pace only makes Engelhardt's easy targets appear more predictable and derivative. The acting is "pure" Sam Kinnison: suddenly pounce on a line and scream it silly. Sometimes Bermingham just goes for the goofy: in one bit of excess Carl and Sandi flap their arms like spastic gooney birds. This unmotivated silliness doesn't work, but it points to a better strategy: if Engelhardt's stereotypes are to play at all, it will have to be as fast-moving cartoons--for if they're played for truth, they won't yield anything.

As jaded dominatrix Sandi, Amanda Sullivan is a lovely young woman whose brains clearly counted much less than her body for this show. Sullivan can switch moods on a dime, but her sultry, intriguing Kathleen Turner imitation soon wears thin. Richard Blades plays lumpy, vicarious Carl with pit-bull vigor but little sense of play.

Russell Alan Rowe, so comedically cunning in Bailiwick Repertory's Laughing Wild, cleverly contrasts Jeff's winsome first-act charm with his preposterous urban cowboy in the second act. Rowe can milk a double take and bluster well, but Jeff remains a one-joke fabrication.

Well, they don't call themselves Torso Theatre for nothing. Somebody hand them a brain.

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