Reviews

Sex Work/Sex Play **

By: Samuel L. Leiter

October 12, 2023: Sex farces have been around from as long ago as Aristophanes. They’ve spanned the spectrum from cleverly sophisticated to inanely infantile. Those at the latter end of the arc became regular visitors in the 1970s, when the boundaries of what audiences found acceptable in terms of nudity, language, and subject matter—pried open in the 1960s—blew sky high. 

Amber Gatlin, Josh Hyman, Christopher Trindade, Kerry McGann and Constance Zaytoun.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

October 12, 2023: Sex farces have been around from as long ago as Aristophanes. They’ve spanned the spectrum from cleverly sophisticated to inanely infantile. Those at the latter end of the arc became regular visitors in the 1970s, when the boundaries of what audiences found acceptable in terms of nudity, language, and subject matter—pried open in the 1960s—blew sky high. 

Now and then, the kind of throwback tastelessness in search of a laugh, any laugh, prevalent back then continues to reappear, usually slathered with references designed to provide a pretension of sociological relevance. Take, for example, Caytha Jentis’s Sex Work/Sex Play, now at the 28th Street Theatre (long the home of the youth theatre called TADA, of all places). The play is part of a three-play repertory presented by the Emerging Artists Theatre, the others being Doris Day: My Secret Love and Anne Being Frank.

SW/SP has no nudity (although one scene implies its presence), but in every other respect its treatment of sexual issues is as juvenile as, in a non-sexual way, the kinds of shows for which this venue is known; actually, that’s not really fair to the frequently high quality of those young people-oriented shows.

Jentis (The Other F Word), whose creative output includes several films and plays involving household name-talent, writes situations that undoubtedly have comic potential; her reliance on extreme erotic escapades and discourse, however, written and performed with over-the-top exaggeration, quickly implodes; not quickly enough, though, given its hour and a half intermissionless running time. On the other hand, at the show I attended, most of the audience packing every one of this theatre’s 99 seats reacted with such frequent and raucous laughter, followed by a standing O, that I felt like a progressive spy planted at a Trump rally hoping no one noticed my stone-like countenance.  

Amber Gatlin, Josh Hyman and Constance Zaytoun. 

The action is set largely in a typical, if rather homely, stage living room (designed on an obviously low budget by Colleen Shea); a doorway frame at our right, equipped with a buzzer to let people in from outside, lacks an actual door. Since characters often talk to one another through the frame, but no one bothers to even mime opening or closing the invisible door, it’s often confusing as to whether the door is either closed or open. Surely, director Rosie Gunther might have found a better way of handling these awkward encounters. There are other such staging gaffes, but let’s not get carried away when there’s so much else wrong here. 

Alex (Constance Zaytoun) is a middle-aged divorcée living with her gorgeous, 21-year-old daughter, Cassidy (Amber Gatlin). Amber, a college student hoping to study medicine, earns side money as an escort, and Alex, looking for love, has joined an online dating site. Mother and daughter soon discover that each has dated the middle-aged Dave (Josh Hyman), a chubby lawyer, thus establishing the central premise. Dave is married, though, which, for a time, prevents the cynical Alex from getting too involved with him. 

Meanwhile, the action is interrupted by Maggie (Kerry McGann), whose connection to the Alex-Dave-Cassidy triangle is kept from us until near the end. She sits at a desk at our left, delivering a monologue about her marital frustrations, during which she discovers her husband’s porn addiction. Feeling the urge herself, Maggie joins a site where she has online sexual encounters with a male porn star named JRod (Christopher Trindade, who also plays Alex’s personal trainer and an Uber Eats delivery guy). 

Josh Hyman and Constance Zaytoun.

Jentis isn’t content to simply lay out the plot as in a typical well-made play. Instead, she goes the Strange Interlude way, larding the action with substantial self-explanatory monologues that fill in the characters’ backgrounds and explain their motivations. Unable or unwilling to show who they are by traditional techniques, she falls back on telling them to us ad infinitum. Moreover, to guarantee that her purposes aren’t purely puerile, she lards the dialogue with comments on feminism, women’s agency, and similar topics, while also pounding us again and again with a reminder of human mendacity: “nobody tells the truth.”  

The plot, if you haven’t already seen it coming, brings all these folks together in a cacophonous conclusion, which ties things up. Naturally, it had the audience in stitches while I, feeling actual embarrassment for the actors, solemnly eyed the nearby exit. 

Regardless of the inanity of the proceedings (not necessarily a bad thing, given that some of the best sex farces are even more inane), things might still have cohered had the playwright made her people more believable and her dialogue less self-consciously raunchy. The online colloquy between JRod and Maggie, as he brags with ridiculously stagy flamboyance about the size of his equipment or has her do things that bring her to orgasm, had me cringing. For me, the nadir arrived when the erection-challenged Dave suddenly exclaimed triumphantly to all within earshot (perhaps including even the diners downstairs at the sushi roll restaurant Kazunori) his thrill at having a huge hardon (his word). This being a moment of such momentousness in a play supported by constant crudity, one wonders why some device might not have been planted in his trousers to balloon into a pants-popping bulge.

Gunther’s direction, relying on exaggerated performances that rarely suggest real people inside the cartoon characters, fails to overcome an airless atmosphere of artificiality. Zaytoun (I have a feeling she may once have been a student of mine) brings a dry sarcastic quality to Alex that hints at someone behind the façade, and Trindade, far too broad as JRod, has a definite charm in his monologue as Jay. Try as they might, however, the rest—capable as they might be in other material—are unable to make Sex Work/Sex Play more play than work. 

Sex Work/Sex Play **
28th Street Theatre
15 W. 28th Street, NYC
Through October 29, 2023
Photography: Richard Rivera