Freudian Slip

In the name of science, may I cut in? Richard Ooms, Charity Jones, and Tana Hicken in 'The Sex Habits of American Women'
Michal Daniel

Psychoanalytic thinking proposes to shine a high-beam headlight into the dark cave of our most primal urges. A problem: said illumination tends to reveal kinks, unpleasant truths, and unutterable feelings. Into this thicket steps The Sex Habits of American Women. Directed at the Guthrie Lab by Michael Bigelow Dixon, it's a production with wit to spare that fails to cohere into a satisfying treatment of the erotic undertow of life.

Julie Marie Myatt's script takes as its departure point a 1951 book by a Dr. Fritz Tittels, which was essentially a psychoanalyst's clumsily dogmatic take on sex for the straitlaced generation. When we meet Fritz (Richard Ooms) and his wife Agnes (Tana Hicken), the good doctor is laboring under deadline on the book, and agonizing greatly over his big shot at fame. A major thorn in his side is daughter Daisy (Charity Jones), an old maid at 35, her astringent intelligence and nascent feminism having basically overqualified her for a lasting relationship with a man of her day.

There are elements of both drama and comedy at play, though the insertion of short films breaks up the action and makes each scene smack of a disembodied skit. The films star Sally Wingert as Joy, a present-day single mom questioned by a mostly unseen cameraman conducting an anecdotal study on female sexuality. Wingert is wisecracking and salty, and these interludes have merit taken on their own, but ultimately the juxtaposition drains rather than enlivens.

Victor A. Becker's set is nicely eye-catching, evoking '50s modernist decor and underpinned by absurd mountains of books, but a sense of spatial emptiness creeps in when the pace drags on more than one occasion. Hicken pulls off a gutsy take on an intergenerational (and illicit) romance, and Jones is acrid and sharp throughout, but both the drama and the comedy hinge on a sexual tension that presents itself only sporadically. What's lacking is a full sense of the inherent capacity for tragedy (and riotous laughter) that the bottling up of one's drives can produce.

Ooms exudes presence, and his Fritz is fussy, vain, and clueless. He seems to be having fun--his German accent is hilariously melodic, with guttural exclamations and musical vocal turns--but he's also boxed in by a role that seems determined to repress even a hint of rising above caricature. Like the books piled around him, Fritz is supposed to represent the silliness inherent in intellectualizing the Dionysian and erotic realms. Yet his failure doesn't illuminate, and in a light comedy that seems to want to be regarded as something more, we are left without the pleasing friction that occurs when ideas (and other things) are rubbed together.

Theatre Unbound leads off its season with the area premiere of Boy Gets Girl, directed by Jeannine Coulombe. Rebecca Gilman's harrowing story centers on Theresa (Stacey Poirier), a career-obsessed Manhattanite who goes on a blind date with Tony (Zach Hammill). Tony seems harmless enough, until his overeager wooing of Theresa flares into full-scale stalking. Poirier pulls off a convincing sense of inner emptiness that boils over into rage and, eventually, resignation in a story that effectively tightens circumstances with claustrophobic efficiency.

The cast achieves mixed levels of success, though Mic Weinblatt stands out as a Roger Corman-esque B-movie director. He's wistful and funny while being cheerfully obnoxious, and his banter with Poirier evinces real depth and warmth. Hammill's Tony dishes out just enough creepiness to satisfy, though he's entirely offstage once the going gets tense.

Some of the dialogue fails to come to life in what could otherwise have been more nuanced portrayals, and a few instances sound more like lectures than drama. Nonetheless, this is a pretty tough-minded work that gets across Gilman's point: Stalking is the extreme outcome of other, more acceptable, male behavior patterns. Boy Gets Girl stares without flinching at the destruction of a woman's life, in a world where the innocent aren't guaranteed safety or security--and no one can do a thing about it.

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