What must the home life be like in the family of a sex researcher, who publishes academic treatises with such titles as "The Sex Habits of American Women?"
The new comedy which plays in Signature Theatre's black box space just north of Shirlington Village is an attempt to answer just that question. Its title is the same as the book the 1950s sexologist is working on in the play, as he remains blithely ignorant of his wife's extramarital activities or his daughter's lesbianism.
The play, by Julie Marie Myatt, was first produced in San Francisco three years ago, and has been picked up by regional theaters from Minnesota to Atlanta. Signature gives it a slick, handsome production on a striking set with a cast of Signature regulars and new faces.
The play juxtaposes a live performance of the story of the 1950s family on a highly detailed set with a videotaped documentary of the current day shown on over a dozen television screens placed behind see-through covers in the set designed by Michael Carnahan. While the videotaped segments are well done, especially the performance of Amy McWilliams as a modern housewife being interviewed about her sexual habits and attitudes, they make little impression on their own and seem simply a distraction from the live action.
THIS IS, AFTER all, live theater. The taped segment's lack of impact almost seems to be an affirmation of the power of live performances over even the best executed technological recreation. Besides, it is never clear why the
segments on tape are shown in black and white on multiple small screens as if they were part of the 1950s story. They could well have been in color on a large screen "home theater" apparatus that would be consistent with the time which the program specifies is 2004.
The live family is the sex researcher -- a German immigrant with a Teutonic view of the proper relationship in a family who expects to be waited on hand and foot while he pursues his professional activities, his perfect 1950s model wife, and their school teacher daughter who is on the brink of spinsterhood in their eyes because she's unmarried at the age of 35. Into the mix comes a young professor, a colleague of the husband who is having an affair with the wife. Also, just to heighten the tension, one of the daughter's life long friends has recently married and is pregnant.
The most important new face for Signature in this production is that of Helen Hedman, who is well known in the local theater community for her work at Maryland's Olney Theatre Center, Rep Stage and Round House Theatre as well as Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company. She's the wife of the sexologist.
Hedman is an interesting choice for the role. She's bright, chipper, a knockout in Alejo Vietti's spot-on costume designs and the very essence of the ideal housewife of the Eisenhower era. She'd be perfect if the wife was supposed to be 50 or so. However, the script says she's 65. Her daughter is supposed to be surprised that her birthday isn't her 70th. She's supposed to worry that her lover, being a younger man, will be turned off by her 65 year old body with wrinkles, sagging skin and "things that move that never moved before."
Hedman just doesn't look that part. She's too pretty, too trim and too sexy for it. (Truth in reviewing disclosure: this reviewer is in his early 60s. I fully appreciate the beauty of my generation. I don't for a minute intend to imply that a woman who looks 65 or even 70 can't be attractive, fit, sexy and all the rest. It is just that Hedman looks for all the world as if she could still win out against all comers in a competition for a job modeling the latest refrigerator on television's General Electric Theatre where the sponsor wants to appeal to the young and vital homemaker.)
Playing her husband is Ralph Cosham, who is likewise a well known actor in the local community, principally for his work at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. The role is written as a rather one-dimensional foil for the others to play off of, but Cosham imbues it with a solid sense of reality. He not only has the vocal mannerisms of a German accent, he finds a German equivalent in his body language as well. What is more, he manages to insert just a touch of humanity and gentle affection into the role, especially in the scene where he actually says those three little words, "I love you," to his wife who responds with a chipper "I know."
CONTRASTING NICELY with Cosham's old-world stiffness is Will Gartshore as the young colleague having an affair with Hedman's "Agnes." He's formal enough in his scenes with Cosham to make the professional relationship ring true and casual enough with Hedman to make their love affair seem real.
A major contribution to the 1950s feeling of the live portion of the play is the selection of snatches from popular recordings of the day by sound designer Tony Angelini. They set the tone even before a word is spoken
(except for a particularly funny approach to the by now ubiquitous pre-show warnings to turn off cell phones and pagers). The choice of the designer and director Michael Baron in the editing of these sound cues is a text book
case of getting a point across quickly without damaging the pacing of the scenes.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a website covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.