The major challenge for Sexual Perversity in Chicago, currently running at the Intimate Theatre, is to relate to the modern and changing concepts of gender and sexuality. It is an appropriate reminder of the generational shift from the reactionary impact of established gender roles, and a reminder of what beliefs we should turn our backs on, and which we should navigate towards.
Written in 1974, David Mamet’s hit play addresses the psychosexual exploration within the dynamic society of the time. As director Chris Weare asks, “What are the boundaries?” How does it weigh up against our modern world? A world in which promiscuity and bisexuality feature prominently? Arguably relevant at a time when the “free love” movement, contraception and women’s lib were standard fare for a revolutionary generation, the themes now seem slightly archaic. Since the 70s we have all been elaborately desensitized and the bar for sexual perversion continues to be raised higher. Indeed, during the intro to the play when Bernie recalls his ménage-a-trois liaison with a pyromaniac nubile, one cannot help but let out a condescending smirk.
But the conflicts with Sexual Perversity in Chicago arise with its gender studies. Feminism gets served with a double-edged sword. The archetypal Joan, a young single mother loathing of and loathed by men, is juxtaposed against Deborah, an extremely attractive, carefree single woman armed with a brash sexuality which draws men to her.
On the surface, Deborah appears to be spontaneous, yet reserved, the type of girl you could bring home to your mother. Our first introduction of Melissa Hayden’s Deborah belies the complex impetus of her character. Only as the plot progresses do we get insights to her duality, her unpredictable charm and indecisiveness. Deborah resembles a more contemporary woman – a girl in control and fully aware of her good looks while she dictates the terms of her liaisons, and challenges traditional sexual roles at the same time. With her scarlet lips and forthcoming allure, it is difficult to ignore her presence.
Joan, on the other hand, is a nail in the coffin for feminism, almost a throwback to second-wave feminists. It would be lazy to dismiss Joan, as we are offered some interesting flashes into her intellectual depth. But in our modern world, we have no need for this uptight female stereotype with her repressed sexuality who is always angry and disdainful of men. This concept of the bitter female is a stigma which the contemporary feminist continues to struggle against. To further the point, the only release to Joan’s angst in the play is when she kisses Deborah; ergo she is ‘one of those’ lesbians. Every nuance of Marlisa Doubell’s Joan is done in excess, to a very complimenting effect – from her thorough emphasis on the Chicago accent, to the general emoting of Joan’s behaviour.
We also have no need for Bernie, an oversexed misogynist who is the unlikely friend of the gawk-eyed, almost wholesome Danny. The main conclusion we can draw with Pierre Malherbe’s meticulous performance as Bernie, is how, as men, it is evident how we’ve evolved culturally. Bernie is to some degree mutually exclusive to the modern more open-minded male, not because of his supposed sexual conquests but due to his narrow views on gender roles – a stereotype we should strive against. Hilarity ensues during his only exchange with Joan, as she refuses his charms, leaving him with a bruised ego. Overall Bernie is one of the strong points of the play, and the majority of the comic relief depends on him. Pierre Malherbe keeps the audience in stitches with his ‘douchey’ persona.
Alistair Moulton Black’s boy-next-door charm is conventionally endearing and works wonders for Danny. His character displays a profound progression from sexually inexperienced and coy, to expressive and self-reflective. Moulton Black translates the self-effacing nature of Danny with an authentic “aw shucks” vibe – which resembles a faintly male version of Taylor Swift.
Behind the witty quips of Sexual Perversity in Chicago lies a powerful message of sex during the 70’s. It is best to regard the play as a sharp dark comedy and a forerunner for the ‘mismatched couple’ genre.
Benn van der Westhuizen
Sugardaddy Theatre Company’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago runs at the Intimate Theatre 21 September to 5 October 2013.