“A back and forth, not just an in and out” is a psychiatrist’s feeble summation of modern sex in Lukas Bärfuss’s The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents. He’s administering a remedial course on the subject to Dora, a dysfunctional woman-child who has just been taken off tranquilizers for the first time since becoming more woman than child. Her mother, who had clamored for this peek “behind the pharmaceutical curtain,” grows leery, though, when Dora beds a perverse perfume salesman whose highest term of praise is, “You stink like an old goat.”
The script itself tends toward symbolism and send-up. Dora usually speaks in shards of language borrowed from others, and she often seems to lack any independent personality whatsoever. Tellingly, Dora owes her name to Freud’s most famous “hysteric,” a woman whose oppression by colluding alpha males has become the stock-in-trade of feminist critiques of psychoanalysis.
Director Kristjan Thor, however, cultivates a more naturalistic style, one that focuses on the bruised face under the satiric mask. Grace Gummer, as Dora, makes her character’s self-destruction gleam with an iridescent inner life, and Max Lodge, as her dubious boyfriend, commands the stage with a Gene Wilder–ish creepy-loveliness. Is their romance execrable or sweet? Thanks to this nagging ambiguity, the production gains in ethical complexity what it lacks in satiric energy.