Pizza Man: Deliver Us From...
Sexual slapstick has been a staple of comedy since Lysistrata's soldiers first put up their futile swords in 411 BC. Characters flirting and chasing each other and getting into awkward predicaments is almost always guaranteed a laugh. It can even be funny when one character is less than willing for example, Katherine and Petruchio's first meeting can be hilarious if staged properly.
But a comedy about actual rape, by its very nature, cannot be truly funny, and that is the millstone hanging around the neck of Darlene Craviotto's otherwise very cute play Pizza Man, ending its run today at the Bridge Theatre on 54th Street.
In the play, two women who have suffered much abuse at the hands of men decide to get revenge on masculinity at large. This set-up could be hilarious in any number of ways, but Ms. Craviotto's plot twist makes it horrifying: the women decide to bring a man into their home and rape him. When they finally get the eponymous pizza delivery guy bound to a chair, he laughs at their attempts and explains that as a man, he physically cannot be raped. (Any doctor will tell you otherwise.) The "humor," it would seem, is supposed to come from the role reversals and the inability of the women to complete their task. Problem is, while sexual shenanigans can be funny, sexual violence isn't. Ever. Ms Craviotto tries to get around this inherent problem by making the pizza guy more than willing to have sex with the women, forcing them to beat him and tie him up so that they can properly violate him just like men who would rather dominate a woman than share a consensual relationship with her. It isn't funny when men do it to women, and reversing the genders doesn't make it any better.
But perhaps the saddest thing of all is how good the rest of the play and this production are. Until the plot turns violent, Ms. Craviotto's dialogue is sharp and witty, and her characters are quite interesting. And then, from nowhere, comes the r-word, and the laughter turns from genuine appreciation of a clever story to embarrassed horror. The characters who were interesting become repulsive, and their words and actions are too offensive to be funny. It's a truly tragic descent, especially in a play so rife with comic possibilities. Playing the two women, Lyndsey Anderson and Micha Lazare share good chemistry and timing, making their characters alternately funny and poignant. Their work towards the play's end, however, descends into whininess, lacking the sparks of their comedy. As the would-be victim, Kyle Wood is appropriately slow and smarmy, letting his character's arrogant bravado mask the vulnerability that slowly comes to the surface.
Tony-nominee Austin Pendleton keeps the pace of the play up, nicely letting the comedy flow and ebb as needed. When the play turns darker, he is still able to mine a few chuckles from the offensive and disturbing material. The set, designed by the entire team, expertly captures the personality of the characters, letting the mess of the apartment represent the messes that are their lives.
But none of these good points are enough to compensate for the fact that rape isn't funny. No matter what the gender combinations, no matter who is trying to do what to whom, sexual violence is never anything less than horrifying. Not every play about rape needs to be William Mastrosimone's Extremities, but a sex farce in which the only potential sex is violent doesn't seem very farcical at all.