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Sigmund Freud looks down on the characters in John Patrick Shanley’s Psychopathia Sexualis with a vaguely tartlike air. His lips are crimson, his beard blond. And though he’s a portrait rather than flesh and blood, he’s not just hanging on the wall at Source Theatre. He is the wallan immense face, 18 feet high, with piercing eyes that somehow betray a slight twinkle.
Even he, it seems, is having trouble keeping his composure. And who could blame him? Psychopathia Sexualis is the most convulsively (compulsively?) uproarious look at love and analysis since Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy put punch in shrink-punch lines more than a decade ago. Written with riotous cleverness, and imbued by Joe Banno’s snappy staging with the crackle of Stoppardian farce, it’s sure to tickle the funny bones of therapists and therapees alike.
The play chronicles the nesting habits of four Manhattan yupsters who are struggling with compatibility issues and mostly losing. Arrogant investment counselor Howard (John Emmert) and his sharp-tongued wife Ellie (Cam Magee) are in that state of tense equilibrium often achieved by couples in Noel Coward comedies. “You’re always,” smirks hubby patronizingly when his helpmate mentions her creative-writing course, “trying to improve yourself.” “Or you,” she replies, before letting fly with a poem that shreds their relationship in Kipling-inspired couplets.
By contrast, Arthur (a quivering Kevin Reese) is a paint-stained wretch of an artist, so insecure that he practically puddles on the floor while asking Howard to be best man at his wedding. Fortunately, his Texas-born fiancée, Lucille (Lisa Newman-Williams, living up to the script’s call for a “hillbilly Aztec Evita”), has spine enough for both of them.
Still, Arthur has one secret he can’t tell her and that he entrusts to Howard, even though he doesn’t know him well. It seems Arthur’s a fetishist who can’t perform sexually without a pair of his father’s socks within easy reach. Six years of analysis with Dr. Block (Bill Largess) hasn’t cured him of this dependence, and now, just days before his wedding, his therapy has taken a nasty turn. “I think my psychiatrist may be evil,” he confides to Howard. “He’s taken my socks.”
Howard, who has read enough Jung to fancy himself a student of psychotherapy, agrees to visit Block and try to get the socks back. But his self-taught psychobabble is no match for that of the Über-Freud. “I intuit that you want to know if I’m intuitive,” mutters Block within moments. “All right, I can do that.”
And does he ever, puncturing the balloon that was Howard’s ego so quickly the poor guy barely knows what’s hit him. Emmert deflates hilariously, cocking his head in puzzlement as each of Block’s barbs stings him, trying to maintain his psychic equilibrium by focusing on a middle distance, but slowly collapsing into couchbound acquiescence.
Which leaves the John Wayne-riding-to-the-rescue stuff to the ladies, one of whom actually has a portrait of the Duke on her wall. Smaller than Freud, but still big as life, he’s an inspiration to Lucille as she barrels through what appears to be a lifelong audition for a part on Designing Women. As played by Newman-Williams, this Texas belle is verve personified, whether eating a banana in the least ladylike way imaginable or ripping bows and flowers off a wedding dress that makes her look like a fluffy mound of whipped cream. Newman-Williams puts enough sarcastic spin on Shanley’s lines that even the character’s self-pity (“I might as well move to Texarkana and become a Baptist”) becomes bracing.
It’s Ellie who brings her the news that inspires that crack, spilling the beans about Arthur’s fetish in a series of self-absorbed one-liners (“you know I love you, Lucille, despite my natural competitive ambivalence”) and then giving a jaundiced pep talk on the joys of marital bliss (“men unravel ever further”) that’s designed to mold Lucille in her own image. Magee is pretty sublime delivering such lines, and for once she’s playing to an actress who can hold her own in fierce company.
Also fine is Largess’ Block, a chip off the old Freudian if ever there was one, right down to the beard and receding hairline. The author has made the character’s self-confidence as breathtaking as his insight, and Largess gives both traits a giddy, over-the-top quality, deftly planting seeds of doubt in his patients and then pouncing gleefully on their every slip.
The author’s way with psychological jargon notwithstanding, Psychopathia Sexualis isn’t deep. It’s a sitcom-style romp with a rushed, glib ending that would probably disappoint if it weren’t so briskly handled that by the time patrons absorb it the actors are halfway through their curtain calls.
Never mind. With a comedy this funny, it’d be churlish to ask for more than laughs. Banno’s production is spare in design and precisely on target, from Tony Cisek’s rope frame for that John Wayne portrait to the version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” that sets the tone for the first scene. (Full disclosure: Banno is also Washington City Paper’s opera critic.) I suppose it’s worth noting that Emmert appeared to be playing that scene on opening night with his fly partly open. Normally, you’d chalk that up to carelessness, but in this context, even if it was accidental it qualifies as inspired.
By contrast, the inspiration behind tigertigertiger, Mac Wellman’s fable about an imaginative kid who saves his family from ravenous tigers, doesn’t seem as accidental as it probably should. The evening, which is receiving its world premiere at Theater of the First Amendment, means to illuminate the sorts of scares a child might encounter in the 1990s and to illustrate that a healthy sense of self makes encountering them easier. It begins in the bedroom of an unnamed kid (Kyle Prue) who’s so bored with the way his Uncle Sedgewick (Harry A. Winter) reads bedtime stories that he falls asleep in the middle of one, and it follows him to the top of the Chrysler Building, to New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range, and to the moon, as he pursues the tigers he thinks ate his uncle while he was asleep.
Accompanying the kid on this mystical safari is his alter ego (Sandra L. Holloway), and among the folks they meet are a homeless man, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the tiger-costumed Man-Eater of the Upper East Side, Moon Man-Eater, and White San…well, you get the idea.
All these folks singalbeit not, for the most part, on the pitches assigned them by composer Michael Roth, who, to be fair, has a wayward way with melody. Nor are the things they sing about less eccentric than the tunes. At one point, for instance, the kid ruminates on how “the hunter who would give/the gift of death/knows what the bullet/says to the hole.”
What a child will make of a lyric like that I can’t imagine. In fact, I’m not entirely sure what I make of it. Nor am I sure what director Tom Prewitt and his minions saw in the play beyond a children’s show that doesn’t talk down to children.
Aside from tigertigertiger, I’ve seen just one of Wellman’s playsSincerity Forever, which chronicles an encounter between Klan-type racists, Jesus H. Christ (a black woman), and a pair of cosmic furballs. I remember being impressed at Studio SecondStage’s production a few years ago by the piece’s vivid eccentricity and the cleverness of both its anarchy and its writing.
I can’t say I feel the same way about tigertigertiger, though it has been outfitted prettily at TFA. The moon and the New York cityscape created by designer Anne Gibson, the Cats-meets-The Wiz costumes crafted by Howard Vincent Kurtz, and the four-piece band situated on high in the middle of the audience are all assets. But even at 70 minutes the show feels long and decidedly low on energy.CP