by Brian Scott Lipton
Sarah Jones’ chameleonic ability to switch personae and accents on a dime—a skill which makes her good pal Meryl Streep look like a mere talent-show contestant—first came to many people’s attention over a decade ago with her award-winning solo show Bridge & Tunnel. So without question, it’s now a pleasure to have this singular skill on view again in her new solo piece, Sell/Buy/Date, a poignant and surprisingly amusing exploration of the sex work industry.
Jones’ structure of the 90-minute work is pretty clever. Her primary character is Dr. Serene Campbell, a British university professor in some distant future (or at least after 2050), who is lecturing her students on the history of sex work from 2017 through the present. She does so by using recordings of personal history modules from a system called BERT—a device (in both senses of the word) that allows Jones to portray over a dozen of the recordees.
They range from an Irish woman named Maureen Fitzroy, who became a prostitute in Dublin after being expelled from a convent (for becoming pregnant) to Cookie Chris, an African-American former pimp who has become a self-described therapist to Constance, an 18-year-old working as a hostess for a sex hotel chain who actually aspires to be promoted to “prostitute” (which, in Jones’ scenario, is legal in America by the mid-21st century), and many more.
Each character delivers another piece of Jones’ increasingly troubling, and smartly imagined, narrative about the dangers of Americans becoming complacent about sex work, concluding in a scenario that men raised on instant access to both virtual pornography and legal prostitution start having heart attacks in their 20s, 30s and 40s by the year 2040. (In one of the funniest and chilling lines in the play, Serene tells us: “To give you a sense of the scope, more men’s lives were lost during the peak years of the Male Health Crisis than in the US wars with Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Canada, combined.”)
For all its strengths in blending the personal and the political, the one-act piece might have been slightly more effective without a rather forced subplot about how Serene’s own personal history plays into the sex work industry—especially because any savvy theatergoer will figure out the “twist” long before the final segment. Moreover, while the reveal is meant to be incredibly touching, it comes off as unnecessarily sentimental. One senses it’s there so that the audience can leave happy no matter what distressing things they have previously heard.
There are a few other weak spots in the show that director Carolyn Cantor, who does a mostly excellent job with the proceedings, simply fails to cover up. But by the show’s end, you’ll definitely be convinced how seriously invested she is in her subject, you’ll have learned something about it in the process, and at the most, you might even be tempted to join an advocacy group or start a protest on Sixth Avenue. “No PIECE, No JUSTICE” indeed!
Sell/Buy/Date. Through November 13 at Manhattan Theater Club’s Studio at Stage II – New York City Center (131 West 55th Street. between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit www.nycitycenter.org. Thru November 20
Photos: Joan Marcus