People aren’t dramatically depicting the female orgasm,” explains director Sam Gold (gray shirt, severe glasses). “It’s not a major genre in the American theater.”
Actress Greta Gerwig (gray dress, cheerful ponytail) agrees ruefully. “For the most part, female desire is not a thing.”
Gold and Gerwig have gathered in the café at the Signature Theatre to discuss The Village Bike, a brazen comedy-drama that will mark Gerwig’s professional stage debut. Yes, this season has already yielded a glut of sex-focused shows, from the startlingly sedate Bridges of Madison County to the polymorphously perverse Intimacy. But with the possible exception of Fun Home, which Gold also directed and which includes a jaunty panegyric to collegiate lust, depictions of female desire that feel messy and passionate and truthful are more elusive than the G-spot. Earlier dramas have an even lousier track record. Most desiring females, from Clytemnestra to Miss Julie, seem to end as murder victims or suicides.
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Will The Village Bike change that? Gold directs the American debut of Penelope Skinner’s funny, frank, and discomfiting play, which starts performances at the Lucille Lortel on May 22. It takes its title from Brit slang for a slut, a woman whom just about everyone has ridden. (Skinner is no shrinking violet when it comes to boinking or nomenclature, having titled an early play about sex workers Fucked.)
The play, which debuted at London’s Royal Court in 2011 and won the George Devine award for most promising play, centers on Becky (played by Gerwig), a pregnant schoolteacher who has recently moved with her husband to a country cottage. Becky is bored, lonely, awash in hormones, and frustrated that her husband would rather read books about prenatal nutrition than make love to her. “I don’t want to kill the baby!” he says with growing panic. “What if it’s a girl? What if it’s a boy?!”
Unsatisfied, Becky distracts herself, first with her husband’s porn collection, then through a chancy affair with the village lothario who sells her a secondhand bike. As she fulfills his fantasies and a few of hers, too, she finds temporary solace. “This is real,” she says. “I feel it.” Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. Becky’s so-called reality involves dressing up like a schoolgirl, paying for an au pair to join her in a threesome, and acting out a rape fantasy. Even when ostensibly realizing her own desires, she prefers to be the object rather than the subject.
Though Maggie Gyllenhaal was originally announced for the role, Becky seems a natural fit for Gerwig’s flustered allure. Becky has more encumbrances than the typical Gerwig character — real estate, wedding ring — but she’s still a young woman searching for self-definition. “Greta is so likeable, with such funny and charming energy,” says playwright Skinner in an email. “You really want whoever plays [Becky] to be watchable and captivating.”
With any luck, Gerwig will captivate while she and Gold attempt a weirdly difficult feat: staging sex that looks and feels real, even as it’s definitively fake. Gold is the sort of director who takes his realism seriously. During Annie Baker’s The Flick, which recently won a Pulitzer, he had pieces of popcorn blown in from the wings for the theater usher characters to sweep up. Gerwig, who also works as a screenwriter, has a substantial career in film, where camera angles and multiple takes make fakery a lot less obvious. (She also has plenty of experience with nude scenes, as several dubious websites helpfully catalog.)
This early in the rehearsal period, neither Gold nor Gerwig has settled on any specific sexual choreography, but both are thinking about the effect they want it to have on the audience: discomfort rather than titillation. “I am interested in the banal honesty of real people’s sex lives,” says Gold. “I really want the transaction where people in the audience pretend they don’t watch pornography while they watch someone watch pornography.”
Gerwig, who resists saying too much about the plot and character for fear of derailing her acting process, worries that film has made it difficult for people to gauge what real sex looks like. “There’s always a shot of the woman where you’re like, oh, the penis just went in,” she says. ” I want to make a YouTube montage: ‘The Penis Went In.’ That’s the cliché. But what does it actually look like when you have sex? And given that we’re not actually having sex, how do we actually make this feel real?”
She recently listened to Caitlin Moran’s memoir How to Be a Woman, and sympathizes with Moran’s inability to find pornography that showed women actually achieving orgasm. “The fact that it doesn’t exist, that’s incredibly telling of where we are and what we fetishize,” says Gerwig. “Women’s enjoyment is not important, we’re not looking to see that.”
Of course, The Village Bike may not even really be about women’s enjoyment, but instead about how Becky uses sex in an attempt to free herself from the forces constraining her — pregnancy, marriage, remodeling. But desire isn’t all that liberating, particularly as the majority of Becky’s desires seem based around what men expect rather than what she might actually want. As Gold says, “The play goes in a very dark direction, because there’s no sense that Becky is eventually going to make herself understood.”
If what women want has flummoxed great thinkers, maybe it’s no great surprise that it confuses Becky. And Gerwig, too. “I think the whole thing of what’s sexual and what’s sexy and what’s being a sexual object and what’s being erotic, it’s such a complicated thing,” she says, confessing that she finds such concepts puzzling in her own career. “Being sexy in any capacity, I have so much trouble with it — in films, in television shows.”
And yet, understanding and conveying Becky’s sexuality may not be the greatest challenge that The Village Bike offers. Asked what aspect of the play would test her the most, Gerwig replies, “Probably the English accent.”
The Village Bike begins performances May 22 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, 866-811-4111, mcctheater.org