Paula Vogel's "Hot 'n' Throbbing" is probably, like her "How I Learned to Drive," a difficult, controversial script, but it's hard to get much sense of the play from the Arena Stage production, which director Molly Smith has tricked up with a film-clip accompaniment that visually competes with and finally defeats the actors.
Charlene (Lynnda Ferguson), a single mother of two teenagers, is supporting her family by writing screenplays for a feminist movie company that specializes in "adult erotic entertainment for women." Her job hasn't taught her anything, however, about giving sexual guidance to adolescents: Her daughter, Leslie Ann (Rhea Seehorn), is a tantrummy loudmouth with secret masochistic fantasies, and her son, Calvin (Danny Pintauro), likes to peep at Sis undressing.
Then there's her estranged alcoholic husband, Clyde (Colin Lane). She's gotten a restraining order against him but, as the news daily reminds us, those don't exactly work. He comes to call. She shoots him in the right buttock. Things go downhill from there. Very, very downhill.
Vogel has included two nonrealistic characters, played by Craig Wallace and Sue Jin Song, to articulate hidden thoughts and provide commentary, but they just crowd the action. They're little more than living footnotes who, with the film-clip footnotes, contribute to the general noise. Like an academic joke, Vogel's play becomes about the glosses she and Smith add to it.
Bill C. Ray's set in the Kreeger Theater is rather condescending toward the characters it houses. Charlene may be working-class, but nothing about her indicates she would have a black velvet painting of a stag on her wall (I hope this wasn't meant to be symbolic). The orange shag carpet and dull furniture look like generic parodies of what the middle class sniffs at as low-income lifestyle tackiness. There are five television-video monitors on this set, four turned toward the audience, one facing upstage to cue the actors. As the stage story unfolds, the monitors provide a running set of film-clip footnotes that underscore, sometimes ironically, each scene.
The actors are excellent, but you could have Laurence Olivier playing all the roles and the audience's eyes would still go to those TV screens. It's bad enough to make the play compete with the filmed images, even worse that those images are often classics.
Who's going to pay attention to Charlene's simmering anger when on the screen is the notorious scene from Sam Fuller's "The Naked Kiss" in which a bald prostitute beats a man with a shoe? Who's going to watch onstage violence when the horrific shower scene from "Psycho" is being run on four monitors?
Even late in the play, when the TV screens show a video version of what we're seeing onstage, that version steals all the focus. Though a live stage production works with an audience, sensing and responding to our reactions, a videotape of film clips is rigidly timed. So the speed and editing of the clips take over the rhythm of the production, leaving the acted story floundering flaccidly in the backwash.
In the center of this play there's some genuine, risky ugliness--the female suspicion that masculine strength will always ensure masculine control; that a woman's tender emotions--her socially approved love and compassion--are her worst enemies; that there's something fundamentally, unalterably wrong with men. Vogel slaps these nasty fears smack in the audience's faces. "Hot 'n' Throbbing" ought to be on a double bill with David Mamet's fear-of-feminism "Oleanna."
Hot 'n' Throbbing by Paula Vogel. Directed by Molly Smith. Lights, Allen Lee Hughes; sound, Timothy M. Thompson; costumes, Marilyn Salvatore; fights, Michael Jerome Johnson. At Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater through Oct. 17. Call 202-488-3300.
CAPTION: Lynnda Ferguson and Colin Lane in Paula Vogel's "Hot 'n' Throbbing."
CAPTION: Rhea Seehorn and Colin Lane are father and daughter in a dysfunctional "Hot 'n' Throbbing."