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It all starts in the middle of a hot, sticky New York City night: A man and a woman grunt their way through some very steamy love, pounding the bed, groaning and moaning until they reach that very special moment. She screams, "Yes! Yes!" and "Do me! Do me!" reaching a crescendo with a loud and very guttural, "Do me, you hook-nosed Jew!"
Out of such salacious beginnings tumbles Peter Ackerman's entertaining, R-rated, sitcom-style script, the appropriately titled Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight, the opening production of The Ashland St. Theatre Co. Tucked in the shadows of what appears to be a chain-link-fence factory, the little nondescript white theater, in the northernmost reaches of the Heights, is off to a very healthy start with this silly and amusing bedroom romp about love and sex and cultural boundaries.
It turns out that Ben (James Lee Burke), the "hook-nosed Jew," is none too pleased with his lover Nancy (Kelli Cousins) and her bedroom utterance. He snaps on the lights, jumps out of bed and demands that she repeat herself. He cannot believe what he thinks he has heard. Passion quickly dissolves into hurt feelings, verbal attacks and psychological query. Nancy argues that she simply likes to say weird things during the delirium of sex, things that she never gets to say during more levelheaded moments. But Ben's not buying her excuse, and when he ends up calling this "plain vanilla" woman from Grants Pass, Oregon, "white trash," Nancy in turn becomes shocked, her identity trounced to the core.
Pillow talk: With a few choice words, Kelli Cousins and James Lee Burke move from passionate to prickly in Things You Shouldnàt Say Past Midnight.
Now Ben must ingratiate his way back into her good graces, except the doctoral candidate in literature has no idea exactly how to do that. He tries to smooth things over with a bunch of mumbo-jumbo theories about the uncertainty of language. He ends up implying that he even might be gay.
In this scene, Burke and Cousins create a wonderfully complex struggle about the way cultural boundaries affect sexual intimacy. There is something utterly real and poignant and sweetly funny in the way Cousins's Nancy attempts to puzzle out the twists and turns of their conversation. She whines, rages and defends her love and her inability to articulate that love. Burke's Ben is also perfectly confused as he attempts to talk his way through the minefield of differences that lie between himself and his Protestant girlfriend. Try at they might, however, the couple wind up deeply wounded, and after barking, "Goodnight," Nancy stomps out into the night at three in the morning.
Nancy finds herself on best friend Grace's doorstep, looking for advice. But Grace (Courtney Keith) is no paradigm of sexual health. She has spent the night arguing with her latest boy-toy, Gene (Tim Wrobel), an Italian stallion hit man with a heart of gold. Grace likes that Gene is not "complicated," that he's a "grown man" with a "real job," unlike like the grad students she's used to. But Gene is thinking about going back to school, bettering himself. So he wants to talk, which conflicts with Grace's desire merely to mess around. This TV-esque scene, complete with a nice-guy killer who can't say the word "fuck" in bed, devolves Ackerman's play into little more than amusing prime-time comedic prattle. Yet Wrobel manages to bring dignity to the cardboard character of Gene, and Keith is an energetic blade of bratty rich-girl brazenness.
Nancy walks into Grace's bedroom wringing her hands over Ben's gay statement. Is he or isn't he? Nancy neglects to tell her friend about her own anti-Semitic bomb, which started the whole argument. Spoiled Grace is delighted with her friend's problem and persuades Nancy to ring up Mark (Hank Fields), Gene's fey brother, theorizing that one gay man is bound to know another. Therapist Mark has his own predilections: He likes older men. And when the phone rings in his bedroom, he just so happens to be in bed with Mr. Abramson (Kenn Cullinane), a man well into his sixties, who inspires lots of obvious jokes about his sexual prowess.
Mark, Mr. Abramson, Grace, Gene and Nancy somehow get the idea to call up poor Ben; using the wonders of modern three-way calling, everyone's on the phone together. All three bedrooms are lit.
If the cast and crew didn't skitter so quickly across the script's thin subject matter, the whole show would crash through its own tissue-paper surface of cartoon characters and implausible plot turns. But director Ron Jones and his attractive actors keep the lines moving and the audience laughing. While the recently opened Ashland St. Theatre isn't breaking any new ground here, the venture seems to be standing on solid, if well-worn, terrain.