by: JK Clarke
Warning: if you are squeamish about graphic sexual content, then you should probably stay away from this play. And, by necessity, this review. Because, when all is said and done, that’s pretty much the thrust of the production.
Literary erotica tends to be boring, self-indulgent and cringe-inducing. Except in very rare cases (Anaïs Nin), it is usually so poorly written (50 Shades of Grey) and jam packed with cliché, that it is best consumed at home and in small doses, if it all; its purpose is to titillate, rarely educate, and never enlighten. The one woman show, The Surrender, based on Toni Bentley’s 2004 novel of the same name, and currently playing at The Clurman, seems to do just that. Depending on your point of view, The Surrender is either obscene and wildly pornographic, or spiritually transcendent. It’s really quite subjective.
The story told us by The Woman, charmingly played by Laura Campbell (dressed in a sexy, black silk gown over stilettos, garter belts and a corset ), is one of a ballerina (presumably Bentley, who danced for Balanchine’s NYC Ballet) accustomed to painful training and rigorous discipline, but completely at sea spiritually. Sexuality is important to her, but she finds a husband whose religious upbringing she believes will help ground her. It does, but only temporarily, and after the marriage ends, she seeks out a connection to higher consciousness through sexual trysts. Much to her surprise, she discovers it in intense anal sex with an exceptional lover. Through sodomy she discovers new dimensions of life: “A**-f***ing a woman involves rigid hierarchies, feudal positions, and monarchist attitudes. It is about the man’s authority and the woman’s complete acceptance of it,” she tells us. Oh.
It would be easy to call The Woman’s explicit detailing of her debauchery gratuitous. Nothing is spared, right down to an anatomy lesson with a medical chart. But every time the erotica starts to feel trite, or the bad puns become too much, it’s reeled back in, and the dirty details serve a purpose to the story as a whole. More importantly, in between all the candid, explicit sexuality, we hear cries of loneliness and a search for identity and meaning in life. That she finds transcendence in an intense and often painful and ecstatic sexual practice, only belies who she is. We don’t walk away from the The Woman’s story feeling as if we’ve had a salacious moment; rather, we’re left with a sadness over the inherent emptiness of her life.
It is probably the subtlety of Ms. Campbell’s performance that makes the play as palatable as it is. She moves as a dancer would, and she is indeed sultry, not embarrassing or awkward in her sexual demeanor, often a great risk in such performances. It is an unquestionably divisive piece, which will land on some as thoughtful and on others as grotesque. Which is the very thing which makes it art, not pornography. Whether or not one likes it, is entirely another matter.
The Surrender. Through February 8 at the Clurman Theatre (Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street at Ninth Avenue). http://www.theatrerow.org/theclurman.htm