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If the Shoe Fetish Fits

[whitespace] Psychopathia Sexualis
David Allen

Mugging for the Audience: Marin van Young bemoans her problems.

'Psychopathia Sexualis' pokes fun at intimate foibles

By Heather Zimmerman

THE TITLE OF JOHN Patrick Shanley's Psychopathia Sexualis seems as sure a promise of depraved revelations as the next installment of The Jerry Springer Show, and although there is an element of "Quirky Men and the Women Who Love Them" in the play, it's actually a wonderful modern-day screwball comedy. TheatreWorks offers a playful and delightfully tongue-in-cheek production of this '90s comedy of manners.

Arthur (Darren Bridgett) is an artist whose impending marriage to a socialite is threatened by a potentially embarrassing problem: He is unable to have sex unless he has a particular pair of argyle socks nearby. After six years of unsuccessful treatment, his psychiatrist, Dr. Block (Tommy A. Gomez), in a last-ditch effort, has stolen the socks. Somehow never having revealed his fetish to his bride-to-be, Arthur, desperate to retrieve the footwear before his wedding night, enlists the help of his friend Howard (Dan Hiatt). On shaky ground himself after leaving his job as a stock analyst, Howard has taken up amateur psychology in an attempt at self-treatment.

Shanley's broad upper-class society caricatures, engaging in witty, sometimes wicked banter, bear more than a passing resemblance to the high-society folk of '30s screwball comedies; in fact, in some ways, Psychopathia Sexualis calls to mind TheatreWorks' recent production of Noël Coward's Present Laughter.

Although the roots of the conflicts in the two plays are almost opposites--without his socks, Arthur can't "perform" in bed at all, whereas Present Laughter's leading man, Garry Essendine, can't seem to stop "performing"--both plays use to good advantage the distaste and titillation with which friends approach the characters' respective sexual "problems." Their reactions are a telling mix of outward embarrassment and the palpably gleeful urge to meddle. It's hardly news that puritanical attitudes still abound these days, but in taking on sexual prudishness, what each play really attacks is hypocrisy.

In Psychopathia Sexualis, nearly every scene reveals some secret held for fear of embarrassment or loss of pride. Arthur has kept mum from everyone his six-year stint in therapy; Howard's wife, Ellie (Rebecca Dines), has concealed Howard's nervous breakdown from her close friend (and Arthur's intended), Lucille (Marin Van Young). Even Dr. Block can't be completely honest with himself--or Arthur--about his apparent inability to cure the sock fetish.

The fear of weakness--or of appearing weak--is innately human, and Shanley handles it with all the reverence we fragile beings deserve. That is to say, very little. From the self-important Howard to the wildly erratic Dr. Block to the prickly spoiled little rich girl Lucille, Shanley holds up some of the very worst weaknesses in us and makes them hilarious.

But even as they struggle to hide their darkest secrets--in fact, because they do--these characters are baldly honest. They may be broad but they're still real, and TheatreWorks' cast, ably helmed by Amy Gonzalez, turns in performances to match. Van Young almost steals the show as Lucille, a kind of southern belle from hell, spoiled but possessed of a gargantuan inner strength. Gomez's Dr. Block is thuggish enough to make him as potentially "evil" as Arthur claims, but also sensitively intelligent. Hiatt's Howard is one big shattered nerve with lots of scholarly armor.

Like Coward, Shanley pokes fun at our pretensions, and to a certain extent, Psychopathia Sexualis is a farce, one that affectionately mocks the human condition as a whole. Perhaps above all, it champions honesty--to a degree in the bedroom that would make Dr. Ruth proud, but also in every other relationship. Most honestly of all, Shanley's play celebrates humans' reliance on each other, and the almost insane quest for self-improvement to which that can drive us.

Psychopathia Sexualis plays Tuesday at 7:30pm through Mar 30; Wednesday-Thursday at 8pm through April 1; Friday-Saturday at 8pm (plus March 27 and April 10 at 2pm); Sunday (March 28 and April 11) at 2pm and March 21, 28 and April 4 at 7pm through April 11 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $19-$35. (650/903-6000)

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From the March 18-24, 1999 issue of Metro.

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