Theater

'Sex Habits': Wrong Side of the Bed

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 4, 2006

What joys or revelations might be contained in a play called "The Sex Habits of American Women"? A Woody Allen-ish spoof of progressive pop psychology and how-to manuals? A "Kinsey"-esque exploration of social upheaval as the sexual revolution takes the nation by storm?

Or -- this being the modern American stage -- how about something glum and cranky? That's the tone in Signature Theatre's production of Julie Marie Myatt's "The Sex Habits of American Women," which takes its title from a study (not a good one, apparently) published in 1951 by one Fritz Wittels, M.D.

To be fair, tone is a tricky thing in Myatt's era-straddling script; "Sex Habits" is set both in 1950 and 2004. The 1950 bits unfold in full color on Michael Carnahan's impeccable Donna Reed/"Leave It to Beaver" living-room set, while the story line about our contemporary discontents is delivered as a low-budget, black-and-white documentary on 15 little video screens tucked among the knickknacks in the cabinetry.

It's now and then, it's larky and sober, and Michael Baron's production doesn't quite manage to blend the ingredients. The show is studiously handsome; Alejo Vietti's period costumes are snappy, and there's a cushiony, seductive lilt to the love songs in Tony Angelini's sound design. It's also performed conscientiously, sometimes even stylishly. But the show never unleashes adequate amounts of laughter or passion, which makes it tough for either of this play's split personalities to work.

Myatt gives us the standard stereotype of the '50s, ripe for mocking. The egotistical Tittels (as Myatt renames the doctor) ironically neglects Agnes, his flesh-and-blood wife, as he frets about whether his new work will send shivers up the spine of his unsuspecting 1950 readership.

"I am pulling down the underpants of American women -- in public!" Tittels gushes, and Ralph Cosham, playing an academic version of the cap-and-bells fool, delivers the line with a rich German accent and profound self-absorption. (Curiously, though, the audience didn't laugh at Sunday night's opening -- and from then on, the show had the awkward air of a blind date going downhill.)

Cosham manages to suggest that there might actually be curtains behind the ol' sexologist's eyes, that he really is oblivious to his wife's pulsing loveliness (Helen Hedman is radiant in the role) and to the repressed lesbianism of his resentful 35-year-old daughter (played with a dusky, biting edge by Teresa Castracane). Naturally, Agnes supports her dunderheaded husband; what else can a good wife do? As Agnes pats him lightly on the back, their intimate encounters -- staged on upended twin beds that give the audience a bird's-eye view -- are deliberately similar to burping a baby.

And yet what we have here is something other than a comedy. Myatt segues predictably into the repression and unhappiness that permeates everyone except Tittels and Ruby (perky Casie Platt), the perpetually sunny neighbor next door who's just had a baby. Hedman's Agnes oozes quiet desperation as the character slides into an affair with one of her husband's protégés, another self-absorbed ninny played with surprising subtlety by Will Gartshore as even this figure gets marked for despair.

Meanwhile, things aren't going so well in the 21st century. The documentary, which pops up like Bergmanesque infomercials between scenes from the Tittels' marriage, chronicles a middle-aged single mother named Joy. She parries probing questions -- "You think I'm going to tell you the truth?" she murmurs -- from an unseen filmmaker named Dan, a latter-day sexologist (voiced by Paul Morella) who might be more charming than Tittels but who is only slightly less vain and off-point.

As Joy, who articulates a postmodern sexual aesthetic that reeks of independence and isolation, Amy McWilliams seems to give an interesting performance, but the video screens are so small that it's hard to get a good read on her, even from close to the stage. Still, even writ in miniature, she's alluring: McWilliams's voice, wry and worldly, sensually idles in a low gear, and the character effortlessly bats the hapless cameraman around while less ably meeting her combative teen daughter's needs.

"Sex Habits," in fact, increasingly becomes about mothers and daughters, although it doesn't seem to flow to that endpoint naturally. But then again, very little of this play can be said to flow, from the awkward transitions -- scenes often just peter out -- to the uneasy coexistence between satire and drama and the pasteboard melodrama of the main relationship. Instead, it zigs and zags as Myatt explores our perpetual knack for packaging unhappiness.

The Sex Habits of American Women, by Julie Marie Myatt. Directed by Michael Baron. Lighting design, Mark Lanks. With Megan MacPhee. About two hours. Through May 7 at Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive. Call 800-955-5566 or visit http://www.tickets.com .


© 2006 The Washington Post Company