NY Theater Review: JK Clarke
It’s easy to forget the atmosphere of sexual repression in this country or, conversely, how sexually liberated our society has become in the last decade or so. Anyone over 40 can remember what it was like in the 1970s—almost Victorian in contrast to today. Daughters of the Sexual Revolution, now playing at Workshop Theater, revisits that era, when pre-marital sex was still frowned upon and homosexuality was downright taboo.
Daughters turns quickly away from what initially feels like cliché. Sure, a lot of the characters are stereotypical figures of the 70s that we might see in a sitcom or movie, but they’re exactly who we would’ve encountered in 1976 Westchester, where the story is set. The play charges right into the sex: two women, Joyce (terrific Christine Verleny) and Judy (multi-layered Laurie Schroeder) return home from a consciousness raising meeting and are making out, hot and heavy, when the phone rings. It’s Joyce’s narcissistic daughter Stacia (a charmingly petulant Alyson Lange), who has just that very moment, away at college, lost her virginity. Though she fancies herself sexually liberated, it’s clear from her need to tell her mother right away—whether as an act of rebellion or out of insecurity—that she’s anything but independent. Stacia, as her boyfriend Simon (earnestly portrayed by Luke Hofmaier) soon discovers, is all about drama and pretense, and rather short on substance. Every move she makes is a calculated attempt to illicit a reaction. She’s the quintessential over-protected, liberal, suburban child who will almost certainly grow up to be the opposite of whatever her parents stand for (and in this case, that means a Phyllis Schlafley-loving, righteous attorney). However, while we are at first led to believe the story is about Stacia’s sexual liberation, it soon becomes evident that it’s really about the changing values of her parents’ generation.
Daughters is a real winner of a play because it tackles multiple aspects of a society undergoing fundamental change. Under Susanna Frazer’s careful direction, and cushioned by the period perfect (without being ostentatious or goofily exaggerated, as 1970s re-enactments often are) set (Jennifer Varbalow) and costume design (Annette Westerby), Dana Leslie Goldstein’s crisp and witty dialog flows easily, allowing us to fall deeply and un-distractedly into the play.
The real revolution that’s taking place around the story is in the changing attitudes toward homosexuality. Joyce is, at the very least, bisexual. Her husband, Ed, who is considerably older and generationally more distant than she, tolerates her dalliances with women, treating them more as a fetish he allows his wife to indulge than her sexual identity. Judy, on the other hand, is miserable in her marriage because she is quite clearly gay, and trapped by her conservative psychiatrist monster of a husband (Greg Oliver Bodine) who treats her anxiety as a disease, rather than a symptom (“Judy suffers from free floating anxiety,” he tells his party guests) regularly subduing her with Valium. Here Judy has finally had an opportunity (in her mid-30s) to explore love with another woman—but tragically with one who is only toying with her. We worry for Judy’s safety, because she seems so fragile; but, ultimately she surprises us by being the true revolutionary of the bunch. She changes her life. Changes it for the better and ends up a stronger, happier, more confident individual.
Daughters is special in that it’s reflective of the entire era and the dramatic changes that began to take place. Homosexuality was only overt in two or three major cities in the country, but because of the movements in those cities, gay people nationwide began to assert their independence and accept themselves, even if it didn’t yet mean being “out.” While there may have been sexual carrying on in suburban hetero households, with key parties and pre-marital sex, these activities paled in comparison with the vast social change going on in the gay community. Daughters of the Sexual Revolution subtly and lovingly paints that picture, showing us the dysfunction of middle American suburbia, alongside the courageous emergence of the gay community. It truly is a play about a time of change in America.
Daughters of the Sexual Revolution. Through October 11 at WorkShop Theater (312 West 36th Street, 4th Floor). www.workshoptheater.org
*Photos: Jerry Goodstein