Self-help manuals have never been more popular. A trip to the bookstore will offer up how-to treatises on everything from changing your brake fluid to writing a best-selling novel. Still, though we may indeed be bigger Dummies today than at any other time in history, our desire for self-improvement is ancient. Just look at The Kama Sutra with its intricate instruction on lovemaking. Deliciously specific, this guide to erotic power has been handed down through the ages, only to end up on stage here in John Harvey's dark script, also titled Kama Sutra.
As Houston's newest and perhaps most inexperienced theatrical troupe, Mildred's Umbrella has assembled an underdeveloped though surprisingly fluid production of this original script about two misbegotten lovers who need a swift kick in the pants before they cause any more trouble. Married, bored and utterly self-involved, Cathy (Gabriela Maya) is in the middle of some existential crisis over the affair she's having. She talks endlessly to her best friend and business partner, Heather (Jenny Weisensel), about the nastiness of sleeping around. Even though Cathy's lover apparently diddles her while reading from "Keats and Kundera," it's clear from the get-go that this is unsavory, motel-secret sex. We know she's in big trouble when we learn that the original Kama Sutra is very clear about other people's spouses -- don't even think about them.
Interesting as Cathy's troubles may be, they come off as bone-dry compared to what's happening in the faculty lounge where her lover, Tim (Robert Rossi), is fussing over bad student papers on Whitman. "There's no irony in Whitman!" he wails. But most of the boyish energy here comes from his wickedly wordy best friend, Andy (David Anderson). As the "Jesuit-trained" naysayer, Anderson sports a scraggly scruff of hair on his chin, baggy khaki pants and shining eyes as he provides some "Socratic therapy" for his whining and philandering married friend. And he's hysterical when he stomps about, flailing his students' papers and castigating them for their tardiness.
Theater New West, 1415 California Street
Through Saturday, September 15; 713-650-8030
Between the scenes comes the erotic language of The Kama Sutra, accompanied by an evocative, almost mournful, guitar score by Marty Scott. There is little in the way of set or lights, and the lovely music emphasizes the fact that the script would benefit from more advanced production values. Director Jennifer Decker could use a little seasoning herself. She too often has actors sit behind a table or has them clomp their noisy shoes across the hollow platform stage.
Still, as raw as the company is, this production shows promise. And there are some haunting lessons to be learned from this dirty tale. When the lovers eventually find themselves alone, all they do is talk, and as the script tells us, "once it becomes all talking, you're finished." Thus, inspired by what might be the world's oldest sex manual, Harvey has created a whole new genre. His Kama Sutra is, in the end, a well-turned lesson on how not to fall in love.
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