Unseamly Promises to Offend, Yet Requires Greater Purpose
by: Rudy Gerson
Now extended through November 8th is Unseamly, a new play (directed by Sarah C. Carlsen) that explores sexual harassment and the legal difficulties of bringing a case to court when one person’s word must be weighed against another’s. A three-character play, a young woman, Malina, approaches a lawyer, Adam, to bring a case against her former employer Ira Slatsky, with whom she formed a relationship with the hope of appearing in his infamously scandalous advertising.
The tragic truth is that Unseamly represents much of the reality when high profile sexual harrassment cases go head to head with Corporate America. Yet, as a work of art, Unseamly succeeds only as a dramatization of how both the prosecution and the defense ultimately manipulate females if, and when, a case is brought to court. The ‘good’ prosecuting lawyer acts with the same opportunistic fervor as the ‘bad’ defensive executive.
While Malina details the months of sexual harassment and chauvinistic violence, the skeptical lawyer watches in the wings as portrayals of the often-explicit events interweave themselves throughout their conversation. As a political statement, Unseamly overlaps very little with the people, organizations, and general stance of those fighting the terrible deeds at the center the play.
What first appears as a play where female sexuality confronts male corporate power, in fact, comes across as its opposite — male corporate power bullying female sexuality.
In Ira’s initial job interview with the 17-year-old Malina, we watch as the sleazy CEO snaps pictures of her thighs and back, and even offers her a not-so-subtle parting gift — a large bright pink vibrator that remains a prop throughout the play.
Time and space fold together, as the playwright Oren Safdie creatively manipulates the narrative and allows the three characters to interact freely across the timeline of events. The impetus for this style of storytelling is to give agency to the audiences — forced to choose how to decipher between competing accounts.
Explicit scenes are the ones especially highlighted; we see the entirety of Ira and Malina’s first sexual encounter. It’s vulgar and painful to watch – its aim is to offend.
Jonathan Silver fully captures the role of Ira Slatsky, the slimy tycoon of the Standard, a thinly veiled symbol of American Apparel, its CEO Dov Charney fired in 2014 after appalling claims of sexual assault coming from his former employees. Silver dutifully calls upon his every manipulative and power-hungry reserve to play a captivating Ira — the Jordan Belfort of the fashion world. He brings the text to life and makes the play’s uppercut to Charney clear.
Stellar acting cannot protect Unseamly from the category of criticism made most prominently against Wolf of Wall Street — valorizing masculinity, the female form portrayed without nuance, corrupt behavior shown to entice and not educate. Unseamly succeeds at fetishizing the crimes of the oppressor to such an extent that female viewers should be warned: you will not leave empowered.
That this play is problematic in its representation of women is unfortunate. That this play does not make its factual influence explicit is tragic. The connection between the play world and the real world is rife and relevant, and issue-driven works such as this should celebrate.
Over the run, talkbacks were and wil continue to be held with experts and representatives of organizations, but a talkback should compliment a work. It cannot redeem. In light of these absences, Unseamly takes the profane — the assault of the female — as an object of aesthetic contemplation alone.
This is not to say that the talented Gizel Jimenez in her Off-Broadway debut fails in her performance. In fact, she thrives in the masterful physical shifts and hairpin turns required to convincingly portray the changing maturity of the many versions of Malina. She is the one female in the show, and as the text suggests, plays the helplessly naive teen and the defiant woman with ease. Yet her role — getting effortlessly tossed around a patriarchal world — fails to contribute meaningfully to a critical conversation about the role of women in legal battles, the psychological damage of sexual assault, and what structures of justice can do to improve it all.
Unaware and helpless, Malina has her victimhood reproduced in the spectacle of the play; the two strong male figures share the bulk of the monologues, while Malina is rendered silent, alone, and ineffectual.
Adam, played by Tommy Schrider, is underwhelming, and I yearned for his intentions to be clearer. The tone of the dithering lawyer oscillates between formally detached, maybe sympathetic, and downright insensitive. As the voice of so-called justice, his role offers little in the way of hope.
And that’s what Unseamly seems to be missing: hope. Its cynical and masculine gaze, its spineless men, its antiquated reality are the foil to the reality of the world that I wish to see – people striving together against a corporate beauracratic tyranny is absent.
Photos: Russ Rowland
Urban Stages Theater
259 W. 30th St.