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A CurtainUp DC Review
The Sex Habits of American Women
by Rich See
Over in Shirlington, Signature Theatre is offering a fun East Coast premiere of Julie Marie Myatt's The Sex Habits of American Women. While not entirely perfect, the play and the production are entertaining and offer a time capsule look at the changing ethics of the American landscape over the past few generations.
Written by Ms. Myatt to poke fun at male sex researchers, she also skewers the 1950's and its male dominated culture's approach to women in general. Along the way, she shows us a measuring stick of how far we've come from smoking as a party activity, drinking while pregnant and women being given allowances by their husbands.
The basic premise of Myatt's play is that Dr. Fritz Tittels is working on a book to present his findings on the sexual habits of America's female population. Fritz is a good guy, he's done his research, but it is all being filtered through his own lens of perception. Thus he -- and perhaps, as Myatt points out, any man -- is not the best person to write about female sexuality. In addition, he's completely oblivious to what is happening around him in his own home. His wife Agnes is having an affair with a much younger man who happens to be one of his former students. And his single daughter -- whom he and Agnes refer to as a spinster and old maid -- is having sexual issues of her own at the high school where she teaches.
Along with this aspect of the play, Myatt has included a 2004 piece, which is broadcast via television to the audience. Thus between the 1950 scene changes, we are taken on a modern day documentary-in-the-making as Dan (whom we never see) interviews single mother Joy about her sex life. The goal with these brief interludes seems to be to show us how times have changed, ostensibly about women's sexual activity, but also perhaps about motherhood. Whereas Agnes will make a great sacrifice for her daughter Daisy, Joy is not about to win any Mother of the Year awards. She comes across as being an extremely self-absorbed and selfish individual -- much to the chagrin of her teenage daughter Katie, who has begun to embark on her own sex life (much to the chagrin of Joy).
It's not as convoluted as it might seem, but due to the use of the twelve television screens (which are situated at the back of the stage) there is an opportunity to miss out on something happening in the 2004 portion of the show.
For the Fifties time period, Myatt's writing is sharp and fun, although there are several unexplored aspects to the play which could be filled in a bit more if the playwright wanted to add some additional weight or depth to the plot. Also, her characters' ages seem somewhat out of range for what she wants them to be engaging in. Otherwise Sex Habits of American Women takes real issues and glosses them over with a high sheen, much like the television sitcoms of the era.
Director Michael Baron shows a great hand for period comedy and, with a number of stylized little flourishes, has made this production seem like a 1950's television show. From Agnes' draping her dress across the couch, to the non-committal "Yes, dear." the whole play oozes a mix of Leave It To Beaver>/I> and I Love Lucy.
Set designer Michael Carnahan has the stereotypical feel of the Fifties down pat. From a bottle of whiskey always at the ready, to the hi-if stereo, typewriter, orange sectional sofa and predominance of browns and blue-greens in the decor. The choice of the TV screens -- which look wonderful as they blend into the background of a bookcase, yet could be hard to see for many patrons -- is an odd one. Mark Lanks lighting has some nice effects and Alejo Vietti's costumes are vintage dresses with the women changing every other scene, while the men are constantly in a suit and tie.
Sound designer Tony Angelini incorporates popular music and other sound effects to create a stylized image of this picturesque period, while also providing one of the most unique and creative "Turn off your cell phone" messages of recent memory.
As Agnes Tittels, Helen Hedman personifies the archetypal Fifties mother and housewife. Perfectly coiffed, whether vacuuming, mixing drinks or doing the grocery shopping, Agnes is almost a blank slate which it would be easy to imagine as vacant. But since we are given entry into her world we discover that the Fifties moms may have been more human than we have allowed ourselves to believe. Could June Cleaver have been having an affair!?! Perhaps. Let's be honest, Ward seemed awfully stuffy.
Ralph Cosham brings an air of confused academia to Fritz Tittels: he's not someone you dislike, but he also isn't someone you sympathize with too much, either. So while his wife is cheating on him, we can understand why, since we have seen them in their bedroom with separate single beds.
As the Tittels "spinster" daughter Daisy, Teresa Castracane is a bit Rosie the Riveter and tomboy. Tired of her parents harping about her single state and wanting something more in her life, she suddenly finds herself embroiled in potential controversy.
And Will Gartshore's Edgar Green, the man with whom Agnes is having an affair, comes across as sincere and in some respects, much like a Fritz Tittels in training, which provides a certain irony. Perhaps it was Agnes' enabling that allowed Fritz to become the self-absorbed man that he is.
Rounding out the cast are: Megan MacPhee, Amy McWilliams, Paul Morella, and Casie Platt.
The Sex Habits of American Women is a fun show that has a surprise or two -- which I've specifically not mentioned. While not entirely perfect, it is worth a look, and will definitely supply some laughs.