“Words don’t matter, it’s what they mean that counts,” says (though I may be slightly paraphrasing) a worldly, French-speaking prostitute in a legal brothel in North Dakota. That isn’t the start of a joke; it’s a crucial line from Brothel by Isa Seyran, a new work offered at Capital Fringe.
The “legal brothel” bit is important. The central conceit of Brothel is that prostitution has been legalized in the male-heavy, oil-booming Great Plains state, and the story that unfolds here is the anecdotal thought experiment resulting from that conceit. Even though some craft and developmental issues plague Brothel, playwright (and director) Isa Seyran and the cast create one true-feeling emotional and devastating moment onstage.
Aging hooker Val and Hal, the most mild-mannered pimp ever to pimp, share anguished grief over a deep betrayal that grows out of a perfectly businesslike part of this perfectly legal prostitution establishment. The play focuses on this moment as a final answer to the probing question asked by writer/director Isa Seyran: “What’s so bad about a legal brothel?” I won’t spoil Seyran’s answer, but I will say that the answer and that moment are very bright.
Written and directed by Isa Seyran
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So bright that, in fact, that moment outshines the rest of the play. Hal and Val are struggling through Val’s age and Hal’s milksop personality to keep the titular brothel afloat. They go through a couple of ideas while struggling through a relatively innocent Health Inspector visit, the spectre of hiring new “employees,” and problems paying for coffee. Their problems are as mundane as they sound. The stakes never seem to grow, and the words feel more meant to be read than be traces of a moment between people. It’s not just what the words are, that they make up examples and arguments and about this hypothetical situation of legal prostitution, it’s what the words should mean, that these characters are real people with complex wants, hopes, fears, and dreams. The script never finds the specificity of those moments, and the actors have been left adrift trying to add guts to these characters.
The setting never got specificity either. There’s little about the language of these characters, their delivery, or the actual words of the play that shows North Dakota boom town or shows that we are in a brothel besides telling us that we are. For a story whose idea is so rooted in a particular place, I don’t find any of the unique and special qualities that places imprint on their people in this play. The cast tries to tell this story, but without the quirky qualities of another time and another place, the story has no legs to stand on and no context to support it. There are states in the American West with legalized prostitution which could have provided great examples for this production, but the production doesn’t use them.
The cast as a whole seems under-rehearsed, which is somewhat natural for Fringe, but may also be a result of Seyran taking on too much as writer and director. Sally Roffman does best as Val, whose pain is the focus of the climax. She fills her objectives with good decent motivation and gives a raucous delivery that sells much of the humor that’s here. Ned Read as Hal never seems to find his edge; Val describes him as sometimes caring, sometimes “cold and calculating,” but we only see the caring never the cold and calculating. He can’t just be called cold and calculating, those words have to mean something. It’s hard to see a pimp who seems uncomfortable saying the word “pussy.” Outside of that critical, wonderful moment at the end, both the leads act like they’re reading their lines from the inside of their foreheads, which is a big sign of lack of rehearsal or rough directing.
Author/director is a tough job, and takes lots of practice and failure to get it right, and Brothel is marked by that process. Glacially slow transitions, bumpy blocking that cut off huge swaths of the audience, and direction that seemed more about gesture than orchestrating the play as a whole added up to Brothel feeling much longer than it’s 90 minute runtime. Onstage, the words of the play just felt like words, not like they meant something. If you really like the idea of looking at the hypothetical world of legalized prostitution, you’ll get a nice treat of a moment at the end, but otherwise I can’t recommend Brothel.