Nothing like a good sex confessional to sell out a show on a Sunday night, and Brent Stansell knows it. For a very bold, very blue 75 minutes he sets up sordid stories like a funhouse, and we walk through each one with wide eyes and big goofy grins on our faces.
DC may be a business town, but we know when to let down our hair and loosen our ties. My Fabulous Sex Life is one of these occasions. The solo piece demands some depth of candor and humility from us, but the payoff is big fun and the communal vibe is palpable.
A California native, Stansell has been all around town as a performer and educator, and he has a knack for the group icebreaker. Upon entering The Shop, attendees have an anonymous sex survey in hand before they can put down their bags. Stansell keeps the mood informal, shaking hands and floating up and down the aisle, laughing with friends and gathering energy.
In theater, it helps to start off with a bang, but rarely has the adage been taken so literally. Stansell’s first jump is off the deep end, into his first gay sex party. This detailed misadventure entertains for its emotional complexity and agility (although there’s some physical agility in there as well), as Stansell chronicles his journey from self-consciousness to joy, to confusion, to jealousy, to initiative, to acceptance, and back to self-consciousness. Oh, the lifelong struggle to believe in yourself, especially when everyone’s staring at you naked!
With a sardonic smile and a little shrug, Stansell has set the tone for the evening. Years ago, he says, after his mother caught him with a Playgirl mag, she explained to him that sex is something special between two people who love each other very much. “Thankfully,” he sighs, “I grew up to learn that sex is like porn.”
For all the brash jokes, Stansell is all heart, and his interactive impulses keep the room engaged. He sidesteps cliché by parceling his coming-out story into flashcards, which circulate the audience through various narrators. Later, after some sobering moments (including a meditation on safety, standards, and HIV) the house lights come up and we play a few rounds of Overshare – truths about your sex life in exchange for fun prizes!
Stansell is also aided by a scene-stealing, irreverent series of projections. For one very funny sequence, he uses the back wall to flip through some childhood photos, with the verdict GAY overlaid, Perez style, over some extra-priceless imagery. Other sections like “Forgettable Encounters” and “Brent’s College To Do List” are, as expected, full of gems.
Stansell sends his clear plaintive tenor to the back row, to great effect. The best sequence of the night, however is wordless. We’re back in college with Brent, laptop on lap, gunning for an instant partner on Instant Messenger. The back wall captures the conversation, in which a mysterious hottie with a surprise fetish draws small, withering looks from Stansell’s face.
At moments, My Fabulous Sex Life lets the formula show. A few societal observations, such as a talk about how Reagan warped the rules of adolescence in the 1980s, feel like familiar ground – obligatory rather than particularly informative. Still, the curveballs far outnumber the straight shots, so we stay nicely surprised.
Brent Stansell’s show is candid with a capital “Can.” As in, yes we can talk about sex; yes we can shed some light on this great, big, scary, thrilling, heartbreaking, beautiful act. “Turns out people are much more frightened to talk about it then to have it,” Stansell says dryly, arching his eyebrows and checking in with us to confirm he’s right. And he is.