Theater archives

Sex Marks the Spot


“No two people understand each other,” wrote Joseph Conrad. “They can but hear each other’s voices.” Writing for a prudish Victorian public as he did, Conrad didn’t add that sex, the most communicative of two-person activities, can also be the most selfish and solipsistic in feeling, producing satisfactions locked away from any sense of pleasure shared with one’s partner. Paradisiacal as such sensations may be, they always have a downside; hence the Latin saying that every animal’s sad after intercourse. Sex left to its own imaginings, without any awareness of another’s presence, inevitably gets wrapped up in fantasies of power and violence, which darken the narcissistic ecstasy but don’t stop the postcoital downturn. All in all, it’s an unhappy business, unless we take Conrad’s statement as a purposeful warning rather than a fatalistic shrug.

These gloomy thoughts were prompted by two evenings of boisterous, noisy, pistonlike entertainments centered on sex, or in the latter case on the pelvis. I hadn’t thought, before this week, that Richard Foreman and the late Bob Fosse could have much in common as artists, and indeed this is only the case because the current shows find both much reduced in distinction. Foreman being alive to shape his own work, Paradise Hotel is a richer as well as a far better sustained evening than Fosse, but next to his two giant triumphs of last year, it has the effect of the door-slamming farces rep troupes used to program at the end of a season to give the actors a rest from heavy emotional work.

At least one door-slamming farce seems to have been in Foreman’s mind: Georges Feydeau’s Hotel Paradiso, the original French title of which is literally Free Trade Hotel. Foreman’s hotel has another title too, as an authorial offstage voice warns us solemnly at the start: What we are about to see is “a more disturbing and possibly illegal” play entitled Hotel Fuck. That’s the place to which all his characters are desperately trying to get “so we can fuck our brains out,” though naturally, this being a Foreman play, they don’t manage to do so once they arrive at what they’re never totally sure is the right place. For one thing, as the voice has already warned us, both the hotel and the play keep threatening to change into the much less provocatively named “Hotel Beautiful Roses”; and when a Foreman character is told to stop thinking about beautiful roses, you can bet that cascades of them will shortly descend.

Even without the distraction of beautiful roses— presumably representing non-fuck-centered things like elegance, tenderness, or the sublime— the men in Foreman’s hotel have brought along their heaviest emotional baggage. They pick quarrels, push and shove over precedence, battle each other with sledgehammers, or shoot themselves in the temple with revolvers. They also seem to have a distinctly vague notion of the difference between fucking and getting fucked, so that you aren’t surprised when one arrives, for the inevitable Foreman apotheosis, naked except for a showgirl’s feather headdress.

As always in Foreman, the women, only one of whom is actually a character in the piece, seem to have a far easier time coping with the hotel’s eccentric demands. For the men, their very openness carries a threat, quintessentially embodied by the heroine of the evening lying on the floor, legs up and open, with the men pointing vectors of Foreman string at her pubic area from all directions.

The shifting, dense ideas behind Paradise Hotel, though, don’t much alter the texture of the performance, which tends toward the harsh and monochrome. Three of the five principal performers— Tom Pearl, Juliana Francis, and Tony Torn— are alumni of the late Reza Abdoh’s company, and their roles have been sculpted for them more specifically than anything in Foreman since the days of Kate Manheim’s
Rhoda. (Their characters are named Tommy, Julia, and Tony.) Pearl, using an improbable Odetsian toughness, and Francis, with her goofy, faintly androgyne humor, are especially strong presences, and Gary Wilmes is amusingly haughty as a foreign-accented figure who seems to be in charge, but as a whole the performance tends to zoom past the suppleness and nuance of Foreman’s best productions. It’s as if he wanted the actors to flatten the play out a bit, to suppress some of its poetic ripples. Or maybe it’s just that, once you leave out the metaphysics, plays about sex become a simple animal activity, like sex itself. No wonder I’m sad.

Few Choreographers have conveyed the essence of that activity with the austere insistence of Bob Fosse in his later works. Here come his dancers, turned in, centered on the pelvis, heads rolling, hands on swiveling hips. Watch them thrusting and grinding and jerking, occasionally pausing to extend their arms to the sides, their hands flipped
up like brackets enclosing a deletable
sentence. In moments of elation, they cluster together and reach for the sky, usually with just the right arm, the hand now spread fanwise, as if getting ready to bat back an unseen volleyball.

This hard-edged, Vegas-y stuff, which is the bulk of Fosse, of course isn’t what made Fosse great; it sums up what he did after he got famous enough to jettison the creative battles with artists in other fields which are the essence of collaboration in the musical theater. The Fosse who brought delight to audiences for decades evolved his work in that messy crucible of competing voices; the later Fosse tried to invent his own musicals without interference, borrowing the script of a forgotten foreign film, patching the score together from a miscellany of tunes by various hands. Richard Eder, reviewing Dancin’ (1978), said with the startling acerbity of the mild-mannered that it was like “the frosting declaring its independence from the cake.” (The Voice‘s Terry Fox said, more bluntly, “Dancin’ is appallin’ .”) More than a third of Fosse comes from Dancin’ and its even more depressing successor, Big Deal, along with TV specials of the period and All That Jazz. The few numbers you might call vintage Fosse include “Steam Heat” from
Pajama Game, the “Shoeless Joe” dance from Damn Yankees, and the “Rich Man’s Frug” from Sweet Charity. Beyond this, there’s little to care about except two items from Chicago, not as well performed as they are next door at the Shubert, and the inevitable “Mein Herr” from the film of Cabaret, which makes better sense in the film than it does re-created live. In place of what you might have hoped to see, there are Reinking-choreographed “dance elements inspired by” Fosse’s classic shows, usually not to music from their scores and not done in appropriate costumes. There’s no narration, no historical context, little enough singing, and no sense that a musical is anything but one thundering herd of dancers after another, doing combinations that get to seem awfully familiar awfully fast. There’s gotta be something better than this— and no, that number isn’t in Fosse either.

Ironically, the few classic dances included from the ’50s and ’60s, apart from earning far more applause than anything else, give away the show’s secret. The later style is both obsessively sexual and narcissistically anomic—
Fosse’s treatment of “Sing, Sing, Sing,” from Dancin’, is surely the only piece of choreography to swing-band music that has no partnering in it. In the earlier work, the sexual come-on is only one among many possibilities. The form is more fluid, the range of movements wider, the colors and feelings and shapes more varied. You can see the dancers liven up, display more personality, have more fun. (The late style is almost humorless.) There’s a sense in which Fosse was always a pure dance artist: The steps he invented for “Steam Heat” have nothing to do with the words of the song, which itself has nothing to do with the action of the show. All the better for him, you might say, that he had a form to work in which didn’t allow his abstract monomania to emerge so openly, which compelled him to use so many tonalities he might otherwise have excluded. If the old musical hadn’t been what it was, he’d have become the dreary show-dance hack that Fosse makes him look like.