Mom’s a pornographer, Dad’s an abusive drunk, and Little Brother’s a compulsive onanist with mild Oedipal tendencies. So it’s not hard to identify when, in Paula Vogel’s Hot ‘n’ Throbbing, Rhea Seehorn’s 16-ish, sexed-up Leslie Ann stomps her feet and wails, “Where’s my fucking 4-H Club?”
The longing for normality is a powerful undertone in Vogel’s troubling and troublesome play, but from the evidence she and director Molly Smith are presenting at Arena Stage, none of her characters have much chance at what America likes to think of as normal. The trouble—and the tragedy—Vogel seems to be saying, is that they’re too thoroughly what America doesn’t want to admit is normal: They’re fucked-up about sex, unable to communicate honestly, unconsciously destructive and self-destructive in the way they relate. It’s no pretty picture, but then most natural-light snapshots aren’t.
Vogel, fresh off the triumph of her Pulitzer-winning How I Learned to Drive—a confrontational take on child sexual abuse that’s been among the most-produced plays of the last few years—has dusted off and substantially revised an earlier but equally confrontational script that twins the issues of domestic abuse and the politics of pornography. Profoundly feminist herself, Vogel writes about a woman whose domestic trials seem to have begun with her return to school and the stirrings of her sense of feminist independence—a woman whose choice of a career in erotica leads her to work for one Gyno Productions, a firm that means to level the porn playing field by creating product that doesn’t objectify women quite so much.
But Vogel’s characteristic aversion to simple situational dynamics is in evidence here, too: Yes, her Charlene (Lynnda Ferguson) has the backbone to throw her abusive husband out, get a restraining order, and shoot him in the ass when he violates it, but she’s also slave enough to her emotions to doctor him, enable him, pity him, even contemplate sleeping with him again. Fear and loathing are at work in her household, but so is that irresistible longing: One of the most chilling things about the story Vogel spins is the way Charlene, fully cognizant of the threat her ex, Clyde, presents, seems to do something to make him stay every time he’s on the verge of leaving. And—as if the situation weren’t complicated enough—Vogel offers up Charlene’s dominatrix fantasies, spelled out in the skin-flick scripts she writes and voiced for the Arena audience by Craig Wallace and Sue Jin Song, who move in and out of the onstage action, commenting, narrating, sometimes participating. (“Don’t believe anything that happens in the red light,” the program’s title page cautions, but we know better: What happens in the red light is the subconscious motor that drives the play’s action.) When those same fantasies, filtered through Clyde’s own desperately confused sexual politics, come back to threaten Charlene, the audience is left to work out the knotty questions of rights and responsibilities. Vogel certainly isn’t providing any easy answers.
Neither is Smith, who has punctuated the stage with distractions in the form of five television sets that constantly play scenes of domestic conflict, even outright terror, from old movies. Some are easy—a snippet from Psycho, for instance—but most are more obscure. Audience members who recognize them will inevitably find themselves puzzling over what subtext the clips are meant to lend to the onstage proceedings, and audience members who don’t will merely find themselves puzzled by the increasingly outre images constantly flickering at the periphery of the action. Although that may be the response Vogel, with her penchant for layered ideas and multitextual dramatism, intends to provoke—indeed, she compounds the effect with a sprinkling of pop-culture citations and a circular structural conceit rooted equally in the repetitive rhythms of filmmaking and the cyclical nature of abusive relationships—it inevitably makes the experience of Hot ‘n’ Throbbing more bewildering than Arena audiences are accustomed to or likely to appreciate.
They will nonetheless appreciate the performances of Seehorn, who’s absolutely fearless in a part that insists that she irritate the audience without alienating it, and Ferguson, who makes Charlene enough of a winsome, frazzled Everymom to underscore Vogel’s observations about the universality of the problems the play tackles. Wallace and Song are great fun as the two “hypertext” elements, and Danny Pintauro’s turn as Leslie Ann’s walking hormone of a brother is comically adept enough to make you regret that Vogel lets the character and his concerns wander off, unresolved, two-thirds of the way through the play. The weakest of the four principal links is Colin Lane, whose Clyde is schlubbish, all right, but a bit too Al Bundy to be convincingly and consistently frightening; it’s dangerously easy to sympathize with him.
But then, part of what Vogel insists on is that we do sympathize with him, even while we’re sympathizing with the people he’s victimized. There’s one powerfully written passage in which she demonstrates a profound empathy for the kind of impotent despair and frustration that can lead some people to explode in physical violence. Yes, Hot ‘n’ Throbbing is a studiedly intellectual exercise in form, but its author is far too smart—and far too passionately human—not to have invested it with some measure of heart. CP