by Monica Charline Brown
The opening words of playwright Justin Kuritzkes’s mind sear through the space like paralyzing ice beams. Jake Horowitz conversationally allows what would normally be shocking and graphic to simply roll off his tongue. In his forty-five minute monologue, Speaker, the character Horowitz is portraying, immediately chooses to include the theatergoers in his narration of what would come to be known as The Sensuality Party.
“Stevie is fucking Barry. And Linda is getting fucked by Todd. And Allison is taking a break from being fucked so that she can have a little bit more to drink. In general, everyone is either in the middle of fucking or in between fucking. We’ve all fucked each other by this point, or we’re getting very close to it.”
The New Group is offering The Sensuality Party on college campuses throughout the five boroughs of New York City, in student unions and common rooms, as opposed to more conventional theatrical settings. Due to the simplicity of the lighting and the seating, a severe lack of division is sanctioned between the actors and the audience – so much so that there is no caveat to signal the play starting. You are led to a seat in the circle formation, consisting of a few rows of couches and folding chairs. Just as you settle in conversation with your guest or gaze at the program, Horowitz engages with every single audience member, making eye contact as a means of sorting out his thoughts.
In a way, it desensitizes the piece’s content that strays from the ordinary and accepted path. You have to accept the world of the play as you, personally, are thrust into its environment. Once you grasp unconventional standard, another facet of the play that becomes almost immediately apparent is the seamless transition the character manifests between what is actually happening in the present moment juxtaposed to backstory. In other portions of the play, this device manifests itself in the form of memory of sexual events contrasted to what is currently happening in life. Whether past, present, or future, each character seeks to find what is beautiful? What is ugly? What is dirty? What is clean? What is right? What is wrong? What is justified? What is play? And who is the ultimate judge?
A night hanging out in a dorm room, six college students, three women and three men, decide to plan an afternoon of group sex during their first semester of college. What originates as a funny what-if scenario evolves into a steadfast commitment. The group of friends include roommates Linda (Layla Khoshnoudi), a British girl, and Stevie (Catherine Combs), a New York City aspiring actress; another New Yorker, Todd (Rowan Vickers) a biologist; Barry (Jeff Cuttler) from Philadelphia and Allison (Katherine Folk-Sullivan). The aforementioned Speaker (Jake Horowitz) reveals their analogous private prep school and privileged backgrounds.
Filtered into the piece is a conscious and constant stream of similes and metaphors. Again and again, taste is a common trigger for these comparisons. Speaker brings to our attention what is different about the generation of free love in the sixties and how they would change the world, versus the sex-obsessed young people of today. In the eyes of others, nothing is accomplished by today’s youth. Streaming in is the awareness that these students each experienced puberty in the 9/11 era. There is a disaffection and disconnection for each character from their sexual drive and their political sensibility. We see how they individually internalize and fetishize their previous sexual activity in combination with the sensuality party. We see these students identify time and moments in their life with when and with whom they have had sexual encounters.
When you cannot see it coming, this night takes a turn for the worst? Barry rapes Allison.
It’s a mystery of what actor will speak and start the next sequence, as the actors are seated among the audience. Then, as Stevie and Linda share a duet scene, their physically playful energy leads to the discovery of how sex plays into individual immersive identity. Todd’s monologue is subsequent, giving a tour to incoming students and flashing back to locations on campus that trigger memories of the event. The final scene is Allison’s earthy and intelligent determination, pitted against Barry’s struggle with guilt, as the two sit on the same couch, speaking to the audience separately. The pacing quickens, mirroring the pace of sexual activity, and the power of the almighty pause shifts to them thinking about each other. In a brilliantly simple moment that finalizes the play, Allison scoots closer to Barry, she reaches over for his hand, he looks at her, and she returns the gaze.
Director Danya Taymor fearlessly leads the troop of very gifted, wildly committed, and emotionally honest actors through an investigation of the blurred lines of sexual pleasure and sexual violence. Bravo to The New Group’s New Group/New Works play development program for plucking a storyteller and visionary such as Justin Kuritzkes, and presenting his concept in such an apropos manner.
The Sensuality Party. Through May 14. Venues include: Pace University NYC and Westchester Campuses; Gallatin School, New York University; Brooklyn College; Lehman College; College of Staten Island; Stella Adler Studio of Acting; LaGuardia Community College; Baruch College. For tickets, visit thenewgroup.org/sensualityparty.
Photos: Hunter Canning