BWW Review: IT'S JUST SEX! Tries to Figure It Out
The battle of the sexes. The battle of sex. Maybe, even, the battle for sex. However it's termed, men and women have scrambled to make sense of their insidious attraction versus spectacular confusion with each other since the Big Bang (ahem). In fact, it's really more of a war - a war of ideals versus realities, of control versus freedom - all waged in an endless attempt to put a button on what, exactly, is the meaning of commitment.
It's an obsessive subject for most us, as evidenced by the great bulk of popular stage, film and literary stories that examine the complexities of sex. The trick then, is not to get it right, but to get it fresh. And that can be a tall order.
In playwright Jeff Gould's long-running It's Just Sex, now playing at NoHo's Secret Rose Theater, we get very little that's fresh, and yet, if audience reaction is any indicator (and it usually is), there's plenty of room in the popular consciousness for well-worn themes. Repetition can serve as affirmation, after all, especially when every couple - and even every single - is trying to make sense of their fluctuating desires.
Gould's formula is simple: three couples, each with their own sexual problems and emotional baggage, meet for a routine night of drinks with friends that ends with boundaries being crossed and emotions being shattered.
The men are quite defined, and this is certainly a man's play: Phil is cheating on his wife because she won't acknowledge their marriage is in trouble, Carl is a free-thinking sexual champ who adores all women - especially his wife - and Greg is the shadow of a man, his ego crushed by his spouse into literal impotency.
Their wives are less fleshed-out or motivated in any direction, and regurgitate some typical female tropes: Joan is emotionally and sexually frigid toward Phil (because of his cheating), Kelly is a sexualized to exhaustion vessel for Carl's potent needs, and Lisa is the iconic ball-buster who's taken Greg down more rungs than there is ladder.
It's in these women that we find an antiquated and gendered perspective so common in such comedies: they are mostly to blame for what's ailing each couple. Kelly is somewhat liberated when she is allowed a transgression traditionally reserved for men, but Lisa's frustration is telegraphed as toxic and without merit. Most troubling, however, is that Joan's heartbreak over Phil's affair is billed as the reason their marriage is failing - not the actual affair itself. (Perhaps we need a sex comedy about how men and women see sex comedies about men and women so differently?) In the end, none of the couples find definitive answers, but they do set course on new paths - and, really, that's all that's required of light comedies such as this.
Interestingly, the major selling point of this new incarnation of the play (which was penned over a decade ago), is that it features an "all-diverse cast," read as: no white people. That's both a welcome and disheartening fact - how is it that diverse casting is still so rare that it can be promoted as a defining feature? It boggles the mind, especially considering the wealth of non-white talent to be found in Los Angeles and across the nation. So, yay, and welcome to 2016, and, boo, playwrights and directors please do your part to smash this as a novelty.
Speaking of talent, there's plenty to go around in this production. Director Rick Shaw expertly keeps the comedy in motion, and cast some deft actors, with the standout performance coming from Karimah Westbrook. As the demanding Lisa, Westbrook steers her character far from caricature, imbuing the villain-light role with subtleties and investment that truly make her the most likable, and believable, of the bunch.
David S. Haley, as the sexually-liberated Carl, ignites the laughs with a role tailor-made for a nimble physical comedian (he also gets the most poignant lines in regard to cracking the attraction versus love code), and Marie-Francoise Theodore's Joan finally blossoms from repressed to revenge, allowing Theodore to brazenly strut her stuff, and boy does she. Everyone holds up their end of the mattress, in fact, and Jeremy Walker (Greg), Kimberly Green (Kelly) and Caz Harleaux (Phil) all ace their moments in the spotlight.
It's Just Sex is not a spectacular comedy, and it will not untangle any twisty impulses that trouble you, but, in that regard, it's much like the sex problem itself - searching for reasons, suggesting explanations, and experimenting with resolutions. It's a messy situation, and It's Just Sex is a reminder that, for better or worse, we're all in it together.
Photo credit: Sascha Knopf