Some playwrights raise questions; some try to give answers. Paula Vogel, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive, both challenges and frustrates because she refuses to give us either answers or questions. She merely presents, throwing myriad provocative themes and issues into the stewpot and letting us do our own cooking. Her bleak but compelling Hot N' Throbbing, now in an excellent production at City Players, stays with you long after the curtain.
To summarize the play is difficult, first because there's not much story -- it's an impressionistic telling of one night's events -- and second because it's about so much. Pornography, desire, fantasy, violence, abuse, love, passion, high and low culture, obsession, feminism, reality television, entertainment, control, power -- they're all here, with no attempt by the author to explain how or even whether they're intertwined. And that's the point. They're all part and parcel of our culture, Vogel seems to be saying, all part of being human in our contemporary society. The inference is that to indulge in one of these things is to be complicit in all of them. Fantasy, for example, contains the seeds of both love and abuse, of both literature and pornography. Does that mean fantasy is bad? When does love become obsession become control become abuse?
Donna M. Parroné plays Charlene, a single mom earning money writing scripts for erotic movies. These differ from pornography, she rationalizes, because they feature women as strong protagonists and are produced by a female-owned company. But, as her angry teenage daughter Leslie Ann (Jen Losi) notes, no matter what you call it, it still objectifies women. Charlene's son Calvin (Blaise Azzara) is having problems of his own, fighting his own geekiness and his guilty attraction to his sister and mother. With the kids gone one night, Charlene's husband, Clyde, an abusive alcoholic, returns, and a night of tense interaction begins with Charlene shooting Clyde in the butt. All this is told in an abstract style that features Charlene's inner voice (Margeau Steinau), as well as voices of the characters in the screenplay she's writing and quotations from novels such as Moby Dick and Lolita, what Leslie Ann later calls "the literature of obsession."
The acting is as complex and layered as the script. Parroné, last seen as a determined nun in Sacrilege at the HotHouse, is excellent as Charlene, who's just trying to support her kids, albeit by creating something she wouldn't let them see. Surrounded by sex and violence in a culture that cheapens tenderness and humanity, how do kids even get a clue? They look to their parents, which is a pretty scary proposition. Azzara and Losi are both inventive, dynamic actors, capturing the anger and confusion of trying to follow the baffling examples of their parents and of the culture. When she's around her father, Losi's Leslie Ann is a little girl again, desperate for his affection, which, in Tom Simmons' creepy performance, is not as innocent as she thinks. Or maybe she does think, and plays up to it? That's Vogel's method, making her plays Rorschach tests for the audience. Is it the characters who are creepy and vile, or is that our interpretation because we're creepy and vile?
Simmons is almost too sleazy and scary. It would have been nice to see Clyde's charming side that keeps Charlene coming back to trust him again, that makes her still desire him. At times, Simmons tends to be traveling alone in acting-land, and his Shatneresque line readings disrupt the momentum that director Ted Gregory otherwise keeps flowing nicely.
Nathan Simiraz's multilevel set, bordered by a yellow crime-scene tape that ominously foreshadows the play's ending, divides the inner and outer worlds of reality and fantasy. Milton Zoth's sound design adds to the tension that director Gregory plants and sustains, drawing us in and keeping us on edge. It's a play that's hard to shake.