Sex Done Dull

If there's one thing you absolutely cannot do in mounting Arthur Schnitzler's notorious 1896 comic sexcapade La Ronde, it's ruin the mood. But under the deadening direction of Leah Martinez and Blake Newman, this is exactly what happens at Curtains Theater. Remember from adolescence when one of your parents would come into the living room late on Saturday night and sit between you and your date? That's how awkward this production is.

La Ronde isn't as much a play as an excuse to frolic naughtily, and then go tsk, tsk, and then do it all over again. Set in fin-de-siecle Vienna, it's quite content to be a daisy chain of ten scenes of heterosexual dalliance from a cross-section of society. In each encounter, a man and a woman talk about love but come together for sex. Whether married or single, they have, to be sure, their affairs in order.

One, using wiles, pursues the other, while the other, feigning surprise, hesitation, virtuousness, indifference or what have you, surreptitiously pursues the one. When they've had enough of this mutual mental masturbation, they consummate their passion. Then they resume their cat-and-mouse games before making plans to meet again.

In deliberate fashion, each character goes on to a second liaison with a second partner, until La Ronde completes its circle by ending with a count being bewitched by a prostitute who began the play by commandeering herself a soldier. If a character has the upper hand in one rendezvous, it's lost in the other. A nervous type becomes, in a different situation, confident; a doting husband is quite the letch. Implicit within the carnal delights are the notions that hypocrisy lurks behind social conventions, sex without some type of intimacy is meaningless and people on such maneuvers are spiritually bereft.

During the 1890s, this ironic hanky-panky scandalized viewers. So outraged were they by the play's implications, so shocked were they that simulated intercourse occurred on-stage (during blackouts), that they hounded Schnitzler until he requested the play never again be produced in his lifetime -- or even after. That today's audiences are more blase goes without saying. Why produce this play, then? There's only one possible answer: for the fun and titillation of the romp.

But Martinez and Newman's direction is so mechanical that the atmosphere is stifling. There's a rote "before," the lights go down, and there's a rote "after," making Schnitzler's already methodical plotting even more awkward. At Curtains, the swains and the swoons all end up feeling the same: painted by limited, repetitive, uninspired number. Nothing erotic occurs, nothing bold, nothing psychological, which is damning in a play about the turn of the screw. What's more, by failing to vary the tempo within and between scenes, for instance, or concoct sufficient running sight gags, Martinez and Newman (it's beyond me why two directors are needed) make it virtually impossible for the text's playfulness to come through. They don't fool around. Predictability, dullness, boredom: not the things nookie is made of.

Two characters waltz on, waltz around, waltz off. As they do so, a soundtrack of every famous waltz tune you can think of is heard loudly in the background, whether it's suggestive (of anything) or not. The music is abruptly turned on and off -- in mid-note -- to coincide with blackouts that are also supposed to be suggestive, but which are instead paralyzing. There's ample opportunity for creativity here: a nanosecond blackout to suggest a quickie, a flickering blackout for slow-motion sex, a fade in and a fade out to convey something more amorous. But the co-directors and lighting designer Marc Gessner just keep the audience sitting there in the obvious, smothering dark. When the lights finally do go back on, the characters aren't in any interesting state of post-coital attitude. They're just lying there. Of course, some of the blackouts are for set changes: never have so many taken so long to cart so little. Chase Staggs, who's designed much more imaginative sets elsewhere, can in this case come up with only a couple of pieces of incongruous furniture and simple painted walls with lots of accessways. You'd think nobody had ever heard that props can liven things up.

Most of the cast rises above what's around them, helping to provide a few sorely needed sparks. The standout is Adrianne Atchley as a "respectable" young woman who plays hard to get even though she's quite easy. Batting her eyes when asking her lover whatever is he making her do? and flashing all sorts of private looks when dealing with her paternalistic husband, she makes her character so comically pleased with herself that even though it's the wooing she likes best of all, the other stuff is quite dandy, too.

Also deserving of mention are Thomas Baird's amusing John Cleese impersonation of a right and proper husband who has a yen for sweet young things still living with their mothers, Derek Cecil's young gentleman who's all agitated desire even when he gets what he wants and UH undergraduate Jim Parsons' completely assured performance as a pretentious poet; Parsons confidently puts on so many airs, it's as if he walked out of a Noel Coward play. More important to the person handling Curtains' publicity than to most of the rest of us is former local TV weatherman Doug Johnson's appearance as a refined count. As expected, his bearing is agreeable and his voice melodious, but he could learn a thing or two from Ramona Floyd, who's so in control of her body and timbre that, in playing a demanding actress, she becomes light on her feet and raises her octaves while preening and gets back on the ground and brings them way down when being frank.

But the cast is up against too much to succeed. Schnitzler's play intentionally exposes the pleasures of the flesh; Curtains' production unintentionally reveals the sins of technique.

La Ronde plays Fridays and Saturdays through May 27 at Curtains Theater, 3722 Washington Avenue, 862-4548.

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Peter Szatmary