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On January 26, 1998, President Clinton looked into a television camera, shook his finger authoritatively, and enunciated, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky.” Now we know otherwise. Indeed, thanks to the more lubricious sections of the Starr report, we know an uncomfortable amount about hallways, cigars, phone sex, and that brief moment of genital-to-genital contact. It’s rare in the annals of politics that the public receives such a blow-by-blow account of clandestine matters or can confidently discern the truth.
A sober counterpoint to these Oval Office antics was the case of Washington intern Chandra Levy. She disappeared abruptly in May 2001; police found her decomposed body in a park months later. After an initial denial, Representative Gary Condit admitted to having an affair with the much younger Levy. Although he claimed no involvement in her murder, and the police never charged him, a pall of suspicion hung over him and he lost his re-election bid. The investigation has since been relegated to the “cold case” files.
It’s these facts, as well as the Clinton-Lewinsky fuss, that playwright Rob Handel explores and interprets in his involving drama Aphrodisiac, the third production of the playwrights’ collective 13P. As the scandal breaks, Alma and Avery Ferris, the adult children of Representative Dan Ferris, try to reconstruct their father’s relationship with the missing Ilona Waxman. Both have fraught relationships with their father, and while they’re desperate to know if Daddy did it, they can’t ask him. Instead, they posit conversations and motivations. They take turns playing their father, their mother, and Ilona, until they’re mired in multiple fictions. Handel’s written a murder mystery, and a fiendishly unresolvable one, but his concerns are more ontological than Sherlockian. Can the siblings ever come to know the solution, their father, or each other? Handel suggests not.
As Alma, Jennifer Dundas sustains an emotional range that careers from contempt to bemusement to rage. She’s most at home in the sardonic, biting off lines such as “Sorry I’m late. I was at my recovery group for children who have to picture their parents having sex because the whole world is doing so.” Thomas Jay Ryan, as the more reserved Avery, works to keep that same gamut of emotions better controlled and concealed. The script allows him a star turn when he re-creates a hotel room conversation in which he plays his father, Bill Clinton, Keith Richards, and Willie Nelson. Handel’s text also features a bravura monologue, performed by a bemoussed Alison Weller, for “that woman, Monica Lewinsky.” When the siblings run into her in a West Village café, she offers a few thoughts on the intersections of sex and power. But even after the trials and the transcripts, the books and the HBO specials, La Monica still isn’t sure what happened. “I mean we had something,” she says plaintively. “We gave each other books.” If even Monica must endure such ambiguity, what hope for Avery and Alma? For any of us?