It would be pleasant if only good writing were necessary to make a play successful. But there are other requirements: interesting characters, action that generates suspense, subject matter important to the audience, a new angle on the usual quandaries. Sure, the ability to turn a phrase can make a big difference. But theater isn’t just about language, and a play like the not-very-literary Death of a Salesman will always stand taller than brilliant failures like Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah or Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles. Above all, most important plays, from Oedipus Rex to Waiting for Godot, put us in the presence of a question — about the characters, about the audience, about society, about God — and then proceed, efficiently and entertainingly, to work toward an answer. Lack of efficiency — as in Methuselah — or failure to entertain — as in Simpleton — derails the whole enterprise. Audiences are particular creatures, and won’t stand for being bored.
I offer this preface in order to explain why Christopher Beuhlman’s Hot Nights for the War Wives of Ithaka, currently playing at Jobiste Theater, is so disappointing. Beuhlman is a prodigiously talented worker in words, but in this play he seems oblivious to the other needs of his audience. So his comedy is almost entirely without suspense, features no character who is very fascinating or even three-dimensional, and looks at sex — its main subject — with the eye of an adolescent still astonished that such a thing exists. If Beuhlman weren’t such a talented wordsmith, these failings might be definitive. But from first moment to last, Ithaka offers glorious flights of English prose, monologues and duets that are so inventive and well-crafted, you have to acknowledge that here, persuasively, is a writer. Not yet a playwright, perhaps, but still an author of some distinction. If he can only figure out the live theater, he may achieve something wonderful.
Ithaka, set 10 years after the end of the Trojan War, begins with two Greek gods, Aphrodite and Pan. They’ve come to Odysseus’ home town to make mischief (Pan) and exact revenge (Aphrodite). The immediate objects of their attentions are three men, Eurymakos, Amphinomous, and Antinoos, and three women, Xanthe, Gryta, and Melantho. For no apparent reason, the woman are played in drag by the same actors who impersonated the men; but since none of these six characters has much of a personality, it doesn’t much matter. We also meet Penelope, still waiting for Odysseus’ return, her bisexual maidservant Eurykleia, her stereotypically gay son Telemakos, and finally Odysseus himself, back in Greece to claim his wife.
Everyone talks about sex, there are various couplings, straight and gay, and if you think this is scandalous, you haven’t seen much contemporary theater. (If you think it’s greatly amusing, then you’re probably 16.) The high point of the evening comes when Pan meets a toy goat with whom he instantly falls in love. But this idyll doesn’t last, and the show finally ends with a scene of mass rape and the reuniting of Odysseus and Penelope. Nothing has been illuminated (especially not sex), and the good laughs have been few. If the actors had a catharsis, well, it didn’t cross the footlights.
And still there are some fine performances. Best of all is Jason Vaughan Evans, a Jobsite veteran, who plays Pan to the very hilt. Wearing a half-goat outfit designed by Bridgette Drehere, Evans is noisy, horny, self-pitying, vindictive, strangely innocent and surprisingly surprised by events. As his counterpart Aphrodite, Andresia Moseley is centered, deliberate, not easily upset and never upstaged. Roz Potenza is a nicely intelligent Penelope, and Michael C. McGreevy gives one of his best performances ever as a macho Odysseus. The other five actors all turn in creditable work, with Slake Counts (as Eurymakos/Xanthe) providing the most memorable moments. Brian Smallheer’s fine set features classic columns and a group of Greek-style obscene floor paintings around a Medusa head. Shaun Hailey’s sound design is eclectic and occasionally ironic.
But oh how boring it all becomes! We know that there’s nothing to stop Pan and Aphrodite, so there’s no suspense there; we know that Odysseus famously returns to Penelope, so there’s no suspense there; and hardly anyone has anything close to credible complexity. What, then, do we wait for? More simulated screwing? More dirty jokes?
Sex is too good to be reduced to this sort of tedium.