Wife Swappers


Editorial Review

'Wife': Cherry Red is back, with its naked ambition intact

By Peter Marks
Tuesday, December 14, 2010

When invited to a holiday party in the Southern California home of Jake and Lorette, a perfectly appropriate gift would be a case of K-Y jelly. See, this swinging couple has a chamber, just off the living room, where the guests strip down to the altogether and engage in group activities that might invite the interest of your friendly neighborhood XXX-rated movie house.

Much of the contemporary content of "Wife Swappers" - the calculatedly outrageous sex comedy by Justin Tanner and the boundary-pushers at Cherry Red Productions - concerns the erotic festivities in Jake and Lorette's playroom. So, for long stretches of this ribald play, the actors parade before us in their birthday suits, conversing about everything from the tastiness of the hors d'oeuvres to the comparative endowments of the other attendees.

Some of this is funny, especially as you watch the horrified reactions of the one reluctant partygoer, a school nurse (Judith Baicich) who has been dragged to the shindig by her overly enthusiastic husband (Carlos Bustamante). But a little of the graphic exhibitionism goes a long way.

The joke wears a bit thin, even after playwright Tanner ladles on the political satire: The hosts turn out to be religious conservatives who welcome any mathematical combination for heterosexual sex but absolutely draw the line at man-to-man contact. (And why do they still call it "wife" swapping? Husbands, after all, are swapped, too.)

Yet as events transpire in the D.C. Arts Center in Adams Morgan, there is also something authentically sad about this tawdry gathering. The impression emerges of people desperate to flaunt their (mostly lumpy) bodies because the other arenas of their lives are so humdrum and stifling.

Acting out the characters' dirtiest thoughts conveys more about the banality of their prospects than the adventurousness of their desires. This notion is affirmed in the fiery final scene, when the evening's sweaty bonhomie devolves into peevish arguments and nasty, pointless accusations.

Directors Ian Allen and Kate Debelack have cast "Wife Swappers" with a keen sense of how average Americans look and behave; the actors' naked composure in the tiny theater aids greatly in maintaining the evening's naughty persuasiveness. Baicich is particularly good as a woman who becomes less resistant (and more inebriated) as the night wears on, and so is Kris Roth as the guest with the loudest, filthiest mouth.

Cherry Red has been on something of a hiatus the past few years, but as a result of "Wife Swappers," it quickly reclaims its place as one of the wildest showcases in town. Your only wish is that the play might have found a way to put a tad more emphasis on the heart than the flesh.

Wife Swappers by Justin Tanner. Directed by Ian Allen and Kate Debelack. Set and lighting, Kim Deane; costumes, Rhonda Key; sound, Paul Vodra. With Catherine Aselford, Tony Greenberg, Richard Renfield, Lucrezia Blozia, Michael Miyazaki. About one hour.

'Wife Swappers': Suburbia laid bare

By Stephanie Merry
Friday, December 3, 2010

Long before the Fringe Festival inundated the city with irreverent performances and Molotov Theatre Group spritzed audiences with fake blood, there was Cherry Red Productions.

Washington's granddaddy of saucy, scandalous theatrics has been responsible for unleashing "Dingleberries," "Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack" and "Poona the [expletive] Dog" on area audiences, yet the group had been conspicuously absent from local stages of late. But now, after a three-year focus on the spooky and scary that included a horror movie and a naughty haunted house, the group is back on the boards where it all began in 1996 - at the D.C. Arts Center - with "Wife Swappers," which offers up a riotous night in the life of some swinging couples.

Consider yourself warned: There will be naked people, and lots of them. "They can expect to see every body part that they could possibly imagine and in most variations that they could imagine, as well," artistic director Ian Allen says, helpfully.

But while the sight gags are over the top (a portly man in a g-string, for example), the vibe onstage is nonchalant, which seems to add an incongruous layer to the comedy. The characters partaking in the evening's festivities act as if this night of debauchery is a typical suburban potluck. This understated outrageousness is something of a trademark for playwright Justin Tanner.

"It's almost Mamet," says company co-founder and member Chris Griffin. "There's no artifice or theatricality to his dialogue." Nor punch lines, according to Allen, who is co-directing the show. But that doesn't make it any less amusing, and Cherry Red has a good track record with Tanner's humor, having performed two of his pieces, including "Coyote Woman" in 2003.

"We used to joke during 'Coyote' that when we'd look out on the audience, they'd all be sitting there with huge smiles on their faces," Allen says. "It's just endlessly silly."

Although "Wife Swappers" doesn't have the dark aesthetic of many of Cherry Red's other plays, it still speaks to the company's mission, which is to spotlight "good plays by often underproduced playwrights who really should be seen by more people," says company member and co-director Kate Debelack.

The company doesn't plan on halting this quest to unearth and share what it considers hidden gems, even as the group ventures into other types of projects.

"Cherry Red's not going anywhere," Allen says. "There's no way we're stopping anytime soon."