Sometimes, playwrights could use a little help from the marketing world. Not that Hello Again is a terrible title for a play, but it would probably sell a lot more tickets if it were called Ten Sex Scenes Without Character Development or Plot. A bit ungainly, perhaps, but it clearly defines this thoroughly entertaining production, currently on Beck Center's Studio Theater stage.
Based on La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler, the work is composed of 10 scenes showing intimate engagements taking place in different decades of the 20th century. Schnitzler was a close friend of Sigmund Freud and is often considered Sig's creative alter ego, since his plays and novels dealt frankly with the illusions and realities of sex and the painful evanescence of carnal relationships. (As it happens, we appear to be in the midst of a Schnitzlerfest right now: This week, the Cleveland Play House is opening The Blue Room, which is another take on La Ronde.)
Entirely written and scored by the remarkably gifted Michael John LaChiusa, Hello Again is a fresh and fascinating pastiche of period music, original song snippets, spoken and sung dialogue, a little dancing, and a few flesh-pony rides. In fact, the simulated sex acts are so lifelike (if brief) that Beck understandably bills this as an adults-only show. But thanks to adroit direction by Scott Spence, the steam never fogs your glasses so much that the many other delights of this production fade from view. Even with the focus on sex, the backstories in each coupling are implied, and it often feels as if the characters are more three-dimensional than they actually are.
Each of the two-person encounters is connected, with a character in one scene continuing into the next. And just so that audience interest never goes flaccid, each vignette is almost entirely devoted to getting it on, in one form or another. It's like sitting down with 10 short stories and just thumbing from one dog-eared page to another. The one constant, other than sex, is intentional incongruity. The lush soundscape, leaping from one musical idiom to the next, is continually challenging and intriguing. And aside from the first and last scenes, which bookend the show at the beginning and end of the century, the rest of the time sequences are totally nonlinear.
Beck has corralled 10 exceptional performers, who take us on this hopscotch guided tour through casual sex of the last hundred years. Tracee Patterson appears in the first scene as a whore who gives away her favors to a soldier (Curtis Young) and wraps up the evening as a 1990s prostitute, satisfying the urgent nonlegislative needs of a U.S. senator (played with shallow endearment by Rob Albrecht). Patterson's singing voice and manner are sizzling, embodying both the spirit and sense of this script. Also outstanding is Maggie Wirfel, who is hilarious as a self-denigrating wife ("I'm morally bankrupt!") intent on giving oral therapy to an impotent college student (Colin Cook) in a 1930s movie theater. We subsequently meet her rich husband (now in the 1950s), played with unwrinkled aplomb by Greg Dziama, who keeps their marriage fresh by continually forgetting that he loves her. Hubby then appears on board the sinking Titanic (nonlinear, remember?) with a gay boy from steerage (Ryan Bergeron). The mystery: Which one will go down first? In another, Curtis Proctor and Bergeron are terrific as, respectively, a gay disco slug/wannabe screenwriter and his hot date for the evening. Tricia Bestic transforms herself from a squeaky-clean army nurse in one scene to a sultry angel of mercy, who initiates the aforementioned college boy into the magic of meat mambo. Her orgasmic oratorio should be put on a CD and given out to the sexually dysfunctional. And Sandra Emerick is desperately sad as a fading actress intent on housebreaking the randy senator.
This clearly is an intricate multilayer cake that, in the hands of a clumsy chef, could easily collapse. But director Spence is in full command of every ingredient. He not only keeps the pace light and enjoyable, he also manages to wrest some poignant moments out of scenes that might have simply been sweaty.
The talented cast is aided immeasurably by a rich-sounding but compact orchestra, under the splendid direction of Larry Goodpaster, which helps the actors sing their lines or speak them with appropriate musical punctuation. The period costumes by Jenniver Sparano efficiently set the scenes and are occasionally quite witty.
Ultimately, Hello Again rather elegantly addresses the emptiness of casual sexual congress, encapsulated in this exchange between the whore and the senator: "Were we lovers last night?" he asks one bleary morning. "Don't you remember?" she responds. It hardly matters. They just say "Hello again," and it all starts over.
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