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Theater review: 'The Escort' at the Geffen Playhouse

April 7, 2011 |  2:06 pm

Escort 1 

Maybe it’s our Puritanical roots, but Americans never seem to be at their levelheaded best when the talk turns to sex. Nothing flusters us as much as conversation about adult pleasure. Doing it is one thing; owning up to it is something else entirely.
 
Jane Anderson observes the manifold ways Eros throws us off our game in her exploratory new drama “The Escort,” which had its world premiere Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse. The territory is large and the playwright’s interests keep shifting, but the production, assuredly directed by Lisa Peterson, manages to maintain its poise even when the characters — and the playwright herself — have lost theirs.

The marvelous confidence with which Maggie Siff, who plays Charlotte, the high-class working girl of the play’s title, lays out a few basic facts at the top of the show sets us all immediately at ease. First, she forthrightly identifies herself as a sex worker, a crisply articulate one at that. Then she fills us in on a convention that will be employed throughout the play to avoid nudity: The actors wear flesh-colored body suits in scenes requiring full exposure.

The escort 2As Charlotte explains in this witty, direct address prologue, the author “feels that it takes too much work for you, the audience, to stay focused if there are exposed breasts and genitals competing with the dialogue.” Also, the actors now don’t have to come equipped with the disproportionate body parts of a porn star — the costume department can supply what nature (or a plastic surgeon) shortchanged.

Ah, the glorious magic of theater!

Our first glimpse of these prosthetic suits, seamlessly engineered by costume designer Laura Bauer, comes in the first scene as Charlotte throws on a medical gown for her gynecological exam. The new doctor she’s testing out is Rhona Bloom, a divorced New York mother of one played by Polly Draper with an attractive mix of diffidence and self-possession.

The two women hit it off immediately. Rhona is impressed by Charlotte’s brisk intelligence and candor, recognizing that this is no street walker but a responsible professional who takes exquisite care of her body. Charlotte, in turn, appreciates not being judged for how she earns her prosperous living. She also enjoys being seen as an expert in human sexuality, a sensual sage who has encountered every kink in creation.

Rhona can’t conceal her fascination with Charlotte’s firsthand knowledge of a subject that has lately been eluding her grasp. She’s worried about her 13-year-old son, Lewis (a very fine Gabriel Sunday in one of his two roles), who has suddenly grown very secretive about his Internet activities. (Rhona has peeked at some of the X-rated sites he’s visited and can’t get the troubling images out of her mind.)  

Then there’s Rhona’s alternately arrogant and sincere ex-husband and fellow physician, Howard (James Eckhouse, who plays a variety of unsavory male characters). Overworked and undersexed, they consider resuming an occasional physical relationship during their meeting to discuss Lewis’ worrisome proclivities.

Charlotte, however, has a better idea. She suggests a male escort for Rhona, who, though initially squeamish, soon finds herself waiting anxiously in a hotel room for her young stud, played by Sunday in one of those augmenting body suits. That the actor also portrays Rhona's son only heightens our collective embarrassment.   

This is obviously a deliberate choice. Rhona learns fairly quickly, after returning from her dalliance and getting the third degree from Lewis, that casual sex works better for her as a fantasy than as a reality. But it must be said that the temperature of this drama rarely rises above the tepid range. The lust carries a clinical chill.   

More problematic is the uncertain pace. The whole first half of “The Escort” is a protracted form of dramatic foreplay. Anderson (whose plays “The Quality of Life” and “Looking for Normal” were both successfully produced by the Geffen) excels at chatty interactions, leisurely catching behavioral truths in every direction. But there’s little forward thrust to her writing. Her characters are in search of a plot, and unfortunately the one she supplies in the second act isn’t always very convincing.

After strenuously establishing Charlotte’s competence, Anderson offer glimpses of a creepier side. While meeting Rhona for a glass of wine at a museum cafe, Charlotte inexplicably asks to keep a picture of Rhona’s son that she has just requested to see. The dizzying events that follow leave the play’s many themes in a tangle. Is this a story about the fallout of hypocritical morality or the hazards of loose living? The playwright is certainly entitled to have it both ways, but the complexity gets muddled by her shifting storytelling terms.

Still, there’s a perceptiveness to the work that is consistently engaging. Anderson’s humor is mild, but her psychology is sharp, and Peterson’s four-person cast compellingly brings it to life.

Any middle-aged doctor who looks like Draper wouldn’t have much trouble finding a romantic partner, but this actress (who has retained the charm and beauty from her days on “thirtysomething”) persuasively maps out the character's inner struggle in dealing with age and disappointment.

Siff, who played Rachel Menken on the first season of “Mad Men,” commands the stage with a bright authority that can't help foreseeing the ironies ahead. She is both the play’s guide and its conundrum, and she fulfills both roles with a crackling finesse.

The men hold their own. Eckhouse nicely balances Howard’s likable and dislikable qualities. Sunday is as real as a withdrawn adolescent as he is a hustler with an Ivy League education.

Don’t go to “The Escort” for cheap thrills. The pleasures on tap are more substantial, even if the play’s promise is greater than its realization. But then isn’t that always the case when passion leads the way?

RELATED:

'The Escort' uses flesh-colored suits to get past nudity and to the naked truth

--Charles McNulty

twitter.com\charlesmcnulty

“The Escort,” Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 8.  $47-$77. (310) 208-5454 or online at www.geffenplayhouse.com. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.


Photos: Top: Gabriel Sunday and Polly Draper.  Bottom: Maggie Siff. Credit: Stefano Paltera / For The Times

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