Flaccid Reflux

Without hype and star power, The Blue Room is just another dated play about sex.

You may remember some of the hoopla surrounding the New York opening of David Hare's The Blue Room. With actress Nicole Kidman in the lead — and appearing nude in one brief scene — the play generated a record-making $4-million in advance sales. As for its earlier London run, it had been a sellout, with some scalpers getting as much as $1,400 for a ticket. The London showing earned rave reviews, and even prompted an instantly famous assessment from one critic: "Pure theatrical Viagra." Though Kidman was clearly the focus of most of the interest, it didn't hurt that the The Blue Room was written by David Hare, one of England's top playwrights, or that it was based on Arthur Schnitzler's famous play Reigen, a 1900 opus about daisy-chain sex in Vienna. Put it all together — Kidman, nudity, Hare, Schnitzler (and rising director Sam Mendes) — and you had the most celebrated opening of 1998.

Of course, what tends to get lost in so much excitement is the play itself. Can it stand on its own? Does it work without celebrities? The Blue Room has just opened in a Sarasota production by the FSU/Asolo Conservatory, and I'm sorry to report that without its star actress to distract us from the text, all its flaws are far too evident.

Most important, the Conservatory production makes it clear that author Hare has little to say about sex that hasn't already been said a thousand times in our copulation-obsessed society. In fact, if I honestly try to articulate the show's meaning, it's simply that the sex drive is a strong one, strong enough to break through all sorts of obstacles, including the impediment of logic.

As we watch 10 separate couplings between characters who don't seem very well matched, we're reminded that what George Bernard Shaw called the Life Force couldn't care less about social niceties, and compels us into one another's arms regardless. The problem is, this meaning is pretty well expressed in the first few scenes, so The Blue Room suffers not only from a lack of imagination but from redundancy.

I'm a fan of Hare's writing — I think his play Plenty is brilliant — but halfway through the Blue Room I was already bored and impatient. And the Conservatory production didn't do enough to assuage the tedium.

You may already be aware of the structure of The Blue Room. First we see an encounter between characters A and B. Then there's sex — signified by a blackout, and an announcement of how long this particular coupling took — and then there's a short post-coital discussion between the principals. The scene ends with another blackout, but this time the lights come up on B having a tryst with someone new: C. Then C goes with D, D with E and so on, all the way to the tenth character, J, who completes the chain by coupling with A.

The characters aren't quite so generic as this might sound — the females include an actress, a model and a prostitute, while the males include a politician, a playwright and a cab driver. And Hare does manage to make them all individuals. But none of the characters is particularly deep or even likable, and once it becomes clear that sex will transpire in each scene, there's not much suspense to keep us attentive.

I wish I could say that the dialogue, at least, is scintillating, but in fact it's merely serviceable, and in a play so often devoid of emotion, our own emotions are seldom called upon. As for sexual insights, don't expect any. Maybe this sort of thing was risqué in turn-of-the-century Vienna (or in the 1950s of Ophuls' film La Ronde), but in the land of Lewinsky, only fidelity is shocking. The couples come together and break apart here predictably.

About the Conservatory production: First I should point out that Hare intended all 10 characters to be played by only two performers. With one exception, the Sarasota staging instead assigns a different actor to each role. Of the nine actors so employed, about half stand out: Luciann Lajoie as a fledgling prostitute; Merideth Maddox as a now-wary, now-aggressive au pair girl; Heather Corwin as an ambivalent married woman; Lauren Okus as a drugged-up fashion model; and Dean Anthony as a celebrated aristocrat. But Brian Whitcomb displays neither the street smarts of The Cab Driver nor the shrewdness of The Politician, Brian Graves seems much too bland as The Student, Francisco Lozano never persuades us that he has The Playwright's intellect, and Katherine Tanner only occasionally finds the charisma of The Actress.

David Newer's direction is adequate if not outstanding, and Richard E. Cannon's set — basically a bare stage onto which props are carried as needed — is so rudimentary as to detract from the action it should support. This is one of those plays that could really benefit from several detailed sets — to make the point visually about sex crossing all boundaries. Instead, everything we're given has the same makeshift look about it, homogenizing what should be variegated and, especially, distracting us from the matter of class.

Finally, The Blue Room fails because its audience knows much more about sex than it does. How could we not, when glossy magazines, TV shows, movies and compact discs have become media for Shaw's Life Force in its relentless drive to get us into bed with each other? Hey, in the old days this stuff was swept under the carpet, and a good play on the subject was a revolutionary act. Now we're all sexual sophisticates, and the least that we ask is that a playwright (or screenwriter or novelist or magazine psychologist) have a new angle on the old skin game. OK, so everyone's sleeping with everyone; good start, Mr. Hare. Now what do you have to say about it?

If there's one thing a play about sex shouldn't be, it's boring. It just shouldn't happen.

But nothing very interesting is going on in The Blue Room.

Contact performing arts critic Mark E. Leib at [email protected] weeklyplanet.com or call 813-248-8888, ext. 305.

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