Soon after Clyde burst through Charlene’s locked front door in Paula Vogel’s Hot ‘n’ Throbbing, the knee of the man sitting next to me started to jitter. The scene comes early in the play, making it very clear that the erotic imagery and comically dysfunctional family established in the opening moments would be taking a dark and scary turn. In forcing his way into his estranged wife’s home, Clyde has broken a restraining order. An edgy sense of dread enters the scene with him, even as Vogel pushes the action toward farce. (Charlene shoots Clyde in the butt and then warns him not to ruin her couch by bleeding all over the upholstery.)
The further the play delves into domestic violence—questioning whether male desire in this culture can ever be free of the brutal will to dominate—the more my own seat quivered with my neighbor’s physical reaction as he squirmed and sighed and clutched his female companion’s hand.
How apt to watch Hot ‘n’ Throbbing amid the inescapable responses of my unnerved neighbor: The play considers, among other things, whether people (particularly women) can have sovereignty over their own experience. Even in the most intimate realm of sexual fantasy, Vogel suggests, we are constrained by the relentlessly misogynist narratives that surround us, from the inanities of TV to the profundities of classic literature.
Such a statement sounds far more tendentious than Hot ‘n’ Throbbing plays. As one of America’s most daring and complicated dramatists, Vogel is too smart and skillful to stack the decks. Charlene (Lisa Emery) is no mere victim. Indeed, she is trying to write her way into independence by composing sexy screenplays for a women’s erotica company. The characters Charlene invents—a strong and sensuous sex worker (Rebecca Wisocky) and a tough-guy gumshoe (Tom Nelis)—come to life onstage, sometimes steaming up the action with their bumps and grinds, sometimes commenting on it with their wry remarks and literary references. Director Les Waters modulates beautifully between reality and fantasy, creating a productive sense of dislocation in both vivid realms.
Charlene’s teenage children—Leslie Ann (Suli Holum) and Calvin (Matthew Stadelmann)—are excited and grossed out by the way their mother, as she puts it, provides “food on the plates and Nikes on the feet.” Both are acting out over their broken home and raging hormones: Calvin spies on his sister as she undresses; Leslie Ann hatches masochistic fantasies. As for abusive husband Clyde (Elias Koteas), he is creepily seductive: funny, intense, and a little pathetic.
Vogel wrote Hot ‘n’ Throbbing a decade ago—at the height of NEA “obscenity” scandals—and has provided a sharp revision for this New York premiere. Without the Signature’s Vogel season, New York might have continued to squirm away from this brave, discomforting work that reveals the real obscenity of sex to be its underlying violence.