It would be hard to find two plays further from each other on the theatrical spectrum than The Censor and The Exact Center of the Universe. The first, debuting here after taking Fringe prizes in London, aims to defy its audience’s assumptions and shock sensibilities. The second takes pains to be reassuring and utterly convention al. Both, though, deal with attitudes toward sex, at least in part, and both are mired in tired cultural stereotypes.
The Censor, by Anthony Neilson, dramatizes a series of encounters between a pornographic filmmaker named Miss Fontaine and a low-level government bureaucrat assigned to rate the legality of hardest-core porn—he’s referred to only as “the Censor.” She’s requested an interview to argue for the approval and artistic merit of a film, which she insists tells the story of a relationship exclusively by showing how the couple has sex.
Stylishly directed by Jason McConnell Buzas with throbbing music and evocative light and shadows, the piece starts promisingly, with Mr. Censor viewing the film as the projector flickers, noting times and specific sexual acts: “16:02, penis stiff, anal penetration.” When Fontaine appears surprised her movie will be banned, the Censor retorts tartly, “It has no plot and no characters: What did you expect, a tie-in to Burger King?”
The play begins with equal antagonists, but as the interviews proceed, Fontaine draws the Censor out, manipulates him, and seduces him. Between these sequences we see flashes of unhappy conversation between him and his wife at home. Delving into his character, Fontaine sniffs out his weaknesses: Wouldn’t you guess it, he’s both impotent and a cuckold. Reaching into his pants while messing with his psyche, she, in Holmesian fashion but with even less to go on, intuits the specific, disgusting sexual fantasy he needs to become erect. She performs it onstage—to uncomfortable titters from parts of the audience—and, hallelujah, they fuck.
As the tale unfolds, it becomes ever more contrived, until it reaches its unbelievable denouement. Charles Willey projects a sweaty, nerdy vulnerability as the Censor, but he’s burdened with the banality of his role. Paula Ewin sends out some sparks as the off-kilter intellectual tart, but her character is as opaque as she is improbable.
For transparent characters, however, we have The Exact Center of the Universe, an affectionate, nostalgic portrait of Vada, a widowed Southern matriarch, narrated partly by her son. It tells the story of how the loved-beyond-measure “sissy” finally breaks free of Mother and secretly marries a girl from the wrong side of the tracks.
As playwright Joan Vail Thorne works out the slight story, we become acquainted with the old girls who are Vada’s tea buddies and best friends. We meet the son’s sweet new wife and her gutsy twin sister, an anthropologist who studies native tribes. We watch Vada age and mellow, wrestling with her many prejudices. The dramatic crux of the second act is her interference when her grandchildren take their aunt’s photographs of “naked savages” to school.
This piece of sentimental fluff serves up lines like son Appleton’s admiring description of Vada: “Beneath that corset, there’s real grit.” It is directed by John Tillinger with slack pacing but with attention to what this production is really about—the acting of veteran performers Frances Sternhagen, Bethel Leslie, and Marge Redmond. Where the script allows them to be good, they are a delight.
As Vada, Sternhagen is the embodiment of the Southern aristocrat who never makes a vulgar display of her pain. Formed of lace-sheathed steel, she bustles about, making everyone do her bidding by the smoothest of insinuations. The first scene, where she mercilessly needles the young woman she fears will marry her son, is delicious. Never has the question “Tea or coffee?” bristled with such menace. As she ages, she shades her stalwartness with a growing awareness of her limitations. She’s a scream arguing about her disgust for the naked tribes. Asked how she deals with nude statues at museums, she explains her strategy of repression: “I stand back and remind myself it’s only marble.”
We are also treated to Bethel Leslie as friend Enid, a spare, birdlike creature who makes her childlessness touching and later, in her dementia, turns fierce—making a kind of hilarious sense. Marge Redmond is also solid and funny as Marybell, the earthy, loquacious pal, who finally—and proudly—reveals her own suspect heritage. These old pros are joined by Reed Birney as the boyishly rumpled and aggravated son and Tracy Thorne as the spirited young wife.
Even more than The Censor, The Exact Center of the Universe is awash in clichés. But it works to make them go down smooth. The first jams them down your throat, deliberately provoking you to retch.