Of sex and socks

Playwright and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley loves words. Anyone with a similar depth of feeling for the currency of human communication cannot blame him; it's easy to become enthralled with the sounds, even the look on the printed page, of words, and forget that they are symbols of meaning, not inherently meaningful themselves. Some would say this fetishism is what makes great poets.

But Shanley is no poet, although he writes often about the romantic and inexplicable yearnings that someone like William Butler Yeats conjured in his rhythms. The problem is, there often exists a wide chasm between what this playwright's characters are saying and what the audience is feeling. No matter how ethnic or experimental the guy tries to get, you sometimes can't help but feel he's playing a theatrical shell game with you: hiding emotions under clever little cups of words, shuffling them around on the stage, then yanking them up to reveal...more words. You might have felt this when Open Stage presented his urban marriage comedy Italian American Reconciliation several years ago, or when 11th Street Theater Project more recently presented his esoteric rumination appropriately titled The Dreamer Examines His Pillow. Or, if you missed those, recall Nicholas Cage's severed-hand soliloquy in Moonstruck, an original Shanley script. This man's characters are too often public address systems for the author's disparate bon mots on ethnicity, psychology, and sex, and how they seemingly conspire to keep us disconnected. Yet Shanley, as clever and observant as he can sometimes be, very often seems disconnected himself from an authentic well of feeling, of human sensations that can only be hinted at by words.

Psychopathia Sexualis, given a brisk and sometimes uproarious staging by New Theatre Company in their new black-box space Theatre Too (a former rehearsal space below Theatre Three), similarly fails to recognize that the art of the hint can be a lot more gratifying than the self-consciously constructed observation. What has been a persistent liability in Shanley's critically acclaimed work sometimes serves the playwright's purpose here, as he is writing about characters who themselves are struggling ironically to express themselves behind a wall of confession and theory. But you get the feeling, as you do with a lot of Shanley's work, that the goings-on here are a lot less significant than the playwright and the characters seem to think they are.

The plot machine is the imminent wedding between Texan Lucille (Charlotte Akin) and New Yorker Arthur (Donald Fowler). It's stoked by one very embarrassing, panicked complication: Anxiety-ridden Arthur is a self-declared fetishist who can't have sex unless his father's argyle socks are somewhere nearby, and his game-playing psychiatrist, Dr. Block (Dennis Millegan), has snatched them away in an effort to break his client of the dependency. Arthur confesses his dilemma to friend Howard (Jim Jorgensen), a cocky former stockbroker who considers himself something of an amateur shrink. In an attempt to retrieve the socks, he's rendered nearly helpless by the footloose Dr. Block. Meanwhile, Howard's wife, Ellie (Cindee Mayfield), lets Arthur's little peccadillo slip to Lucille, who sets out to save her honeymoon by confronting Dr. Block.

Psychopathia Sexualis was directed by Kerry Cole, whose extensive background in improvisational comedy clearly contributed to the relaxed, flowing spontaneity that marks the performance atmosphere. Charlotte Akin's reading of Lucille is one part East Texas debutante to two parts machine-shop bulldog ("I can look at a woman's shoes and tell if she's a hypocrite"), and it's a tasty recipe indeed. Cindee Mayfield slyly delivers the wisdom of her character--a privileged, middle-aged New York woman who's gone back to school, probably more out of boredom than genuine desire--as a comic striptease act: She lifts her ultra-polite society demeanor at just the right moments to reveal the steely armor underneath. The wedding-dress scene with Akin and Mayfield at the beginning of the second act was one of the production's two high points.

The other was the analysis session between Jim Jorgensen as Howard and Dennis Millegan as Dr. Block. Millegan had the audience laughing till they hurt with his Brooklyn-born psychiatrist who combines insight with a command of Freudian rhetoric to create one ruthless conversational partner. Millegan was so funny and so on-target with this degreed professional sadist, rummaging through Howard's dream to construct a most unflattering sculpture of Jorgensen's arrogant stockbroker, I was a little disappointed at how Dr. Block turned so passive during his climactic confrontation with the no-bullshit Lucille. You can see it coming a ways off, and each character delights you so much in separate scenes, you can't wait for the inevitable showdown. Unfortunately, either as written by Shanley or as performed by a suddenly subdued Millegan, Dr. Block pretty much cedes his turf to Lucille from the start. What could've been an especially gratifying theatrical pro wrestling match instead finds the manipulative psychiatrist nearly speechless.

I'm tempted to say this was Shanley's omission, because the playwright also drops the intriguing masculine politics of the relationship between Arthur and Howard soon after they're introduced. The actors (Fowler and Jorgensen) are both good, but I wanted to know more about this strangely tentative friendship and how it fit into the dynamic between this quartet of married friends. Fowler especially, playing the husband-to-be whose strange sexual fetish sets all the other characters spinning like tops, is underserved by a role that appears ready to travel all kinds of places, then remains at the gate after the pistol is fired.

Psychopathia Sexualis probably got a better cast than it deserved in New Theatre Company's smart, loose Southwest premiere, which brought round after round of audience laughter the night I attended. Like many of John Patrick Shanley's scripts, this one is a deeply sentimental romance dedicated to neurotics. But Shanley is far better at neurosis than he is at romance, which makes the rather abrupt happy ending here (the wedding is staged as a brief but funny sock puppet play) seem more of a sentimental concession from the author. Psychopathia Sexualis posits the valuable lesson that love and dysfunction can co-exist peacefully; indeed, that negotiation may be vital if a relationship is going to last. Shanley the man understands this, but Shanley the playwright takes us all over the place--sometimes charmingly, sometimes frustratingly--to arrive at this knowledge.

Psychopathia Sexualis runs through April 25. Call 871-3300.

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Jimmy Fowler