It is the season of good cheer, and perforce time for a party. Jake (Tony Greenberg) inspects the signage on the wall of his living room. “Deck the halls with your balls,” it says in cheery gold lettering. Jake and his wife, Loretta (Catherine Aselford) chat about the string of Christmas lights . Everything must be perfect, they agree. They will be hosting two other couples – old friends Gina and Mac (Kris Roth and Michael Miyazaki) and newcomers Karen and Paul (Judith Baicich and the excellent Carlos Bustamante). First they’ll feed them pigs-in-a-blanket and Hawaiian Punch. Then they’ll all have sex until their brains run out their ears.
Brothers and sisters, Cherry Red Productions is back in town.
When last we left Cherry Red, lo these many years ago, these raunch specialists extraordinaire were staging a play by an obscure writer named Tracy Letts. It is uncertain whether Wife Swappers playwright Justin Tanner (Oklahomo!, Voice Lessons) has a Pulitzer in his future, but this story has good bones, and serves admirably as a vehicle for some excellent performances, particularly by the remarkable Baicich.
The dilemma which animates this story is that Paul and Karen are at this swinger’s party upon the recommendation of Paul’s psychiatrist (the play is set in California). Last night, after a lakeful of margaritas, it seemed like a pretty good idea to Karen, but now she is not so sure. Thereafter the production becomes basically a Baicich Delivery System. Karen – a wallflower at the orgy – tries desperately to be good company as she nibbles on the tiny hot dogs and fends off Loretta’s questions about her favorite sexual activities while she listens to wails and moans coming from the next room. “Your husband has a very nice penis,” Gina enthuses as she wanders, completely naked, on stage. “Thank you,” Karen responds politely.
It is impossible to overstate how good Baicich is in this. Her mobile face and large, expressive eyes reveal with uncanny precision Karen’s fear-haunted agony, and every verbal expression of approval carries, in its quivering undertone, an intimation of its opposite. Eventually, the story moves on: Karen finds a stash of Dutch courage, and so – temporarily – puts her misgivings to sleep. When she staggers back on stage after some hot-tub hi-jinks, she announces, “I did it! I’m a whore, now!” and the combination of relief, defeat and despair in her voice is like a two-sentence novel.
Tanner’s parallel theme is the swingers’ relentless normality. The women – joined by the widow Shirl (Lucrezia Blozia) – discuss the best way to prepare jalapeño poppers while sitting half-naked in the living room, and the thong-clad Jake leads the revelers in a prayer for our soldiers in Iraq. Just as a party of bridge enthusiasts might discuss endplays or the Blackwood convention, so too do these folks talk about the shape of the male genitalia or proper care of the vagina.
But for a play with so much nudity and sex, Tanner’s story is surprisingly conservative, in the sense of the old Hayes code: good sex must end in bad punishment. We discover that the swingers have sad, deeply conflicted personal lives. One of the characters appears to be a pedophile – the one offense which almost everyone, no matter how broadminded about transgressive sexuality, finds intolerable. We discover that the intimate bonding implicit in sexual contact is no stronger than tissue paper, and in the end, the possibility of redemption held out to Loretta and Jake is through one of the most conservative impulses of all.
The subdued strain of melancholy running along the spine of Wife Swappers is what makes it more than a farce – a clothes-less episode of “Benny Hill”, say. That the cast (which includes Richard Renfield as a late-arriving work colleague of Paul) gets this is a tribute to the work of co-directors Ian Allen and Kate Debelack. And it reminds us that Cherry Red, which proclaims itself the only Washington-area theater dedicated to smut, has a more sophisticated portfolio than it lets on.
By Justin Tanner
Directed by Ian Allen and Kate Debelack
Produced by Cherry Red Productions
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
[Need we say it? Wife Swappers contains full nudity and adult material. Not recommended for those under 18, or, as NPR would put it, “more sensitive audiences.”]