With sufficient revision, Marisa Smith’s genial farce could well command the rom-com slot virtually every regional and community theater in the world yearns to fill.
Sex and Other Disturbances by Marisa Smith. Directed by Nadia Tass. Set design by Anita Stewart. Costume design by Kenisha Kelly. Lighting design by Cecilia Durbin. Sound design by Seth Asa Sengal. Staged by Portland Stage, Forest Avenue, Portland, Maine, through May 20.
By David Greenham
It’s the fall of 2018 and storm clouds are circling Manhattan. Winds are pummeling the island, but we are not just talking about whirlwind weather in Marisa Smith’s snappy new sit-com Sex and Other Disturbances. Midlife crisis has struck.
Sarah Young (Anney Giobbe) has confronted her bout of temporal vulnerability in an unusual way — via Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. She’s taking a scene study class and has been cast in the role of Mary Tyrone, an aging character who longs for a different life. Early in the proceedings, Sarah confesses to her best friend, Ruth Wilson (Jennifer Regan), that she has found her ‘different life’ with her scene partner, the young and exotic Niko Pappas (George Psomas), who plays Mary’s son Edmund in scene class. (In playwright Marisa Smith’s mind – according to an interview about the script – Sarah is “Ethel” to Ruth’s “Lucy.”)
Thanks to the nifty set suppled by Portland Stage’s Artistic Director Anita Stewart, Sarah’s upper West Side apartment quickly transforms into Niko’s funky Tribeca apartment further downtown. We get to watch their hijinks right after Sarah spills the beans to Ruth. Sarah is a very willing participant in this liaison, but the charming and gyrating Niko is a pro at sealing the deal. Ruth, a doctor heart-broken by her husband’s recent decision to shack up with a younger woman, supports Sarah, but she is loyal enough to wave all the red flags that the affair triggers.
Outside of the down-and-dirty, Sarah’s miserable. Her (unseen) daughter plays her music way too loud in her room when she’s not hanging out with her friends. Sarah’s husband Alan (Christopher Holt) is, to continue in the playwright’s I Love Lucy mode, Fred Mertz on steroids. The manic Alan is a lawyer by profession. When he’s home he wears an oversized yellow cardigan sweater and shuffles around in his slippers. In an enjoyable repeated gag, he calms himself by eating handfuls of Cheerios right from the box. Alan has become obsessed with climate change and the end of the world. Perhaps obsessed is not a strong enough word: Consumed? He’s gone so far as to purchase a plot of land in Newfoundland, in part because the townspeople of Gander famously welcomed the jumbo jet passengers who were grounded there for several days after 9/11. When Battery Park is completely underwater and the masses are rushing uptown in a roaring panic, Alan will have his family safely in the wilds of remote Canada. The giant rain and thunder storm that never lets up during the action of the play (a week or so?) is proof that the climate change Armageddon has arrived.
For Sarah, her choice is pretty clear. Should she stay with a Cheerios-eating, shuffling middle-aged Mr. Rogers? Or should she stick with the mysterious Niko, who slithers, sings, and is passionate about all the right places? Niko’s young, but not weird young, Sarah promises. He’s 33. “Oh, like Jesus,” Ruth quickly jabs. As expected, the funky romance takes a complicating turn when Niko’s young friend Kelsy (Eden Malyn) shows up — plenty of lightening on stage follows.
Smith, a prolific New Hampshire playwright, knows her way around genial farce, and she has packed Sex and Other Disturbances‘s formulas with twists and turns – some pulled off more successfully than others. The script has been in development with Portland Stage for more than a year, and is presented in this – its first full production – with the assistance of an Edgerton Foundation New Play award, which provided funding for additional rehearsals. Extra rehearsals are fine, but what this production of Sex and Other Disturbances really could use is more interaction with live audiences. Director Nadia Tass, originally from Macedonia and who moved to Australia in the ’60s, does lots of things right: she is spot-on about the exotic nature of Niko and his pad, and her extensive experience in film (as director and actress) means that the story’s numerous transitions jump cut along smoothly.
But the hysterical headlong tumble of the plot ultimately poses a problem for the cast; it seemed as if the performers are still feeling their way through this whirligig of a comedy. Giobbe’s Sarah carries the load, and she has barely a moment to catch her breath. As Ruth, Regan has her hands full trying to find a balance between delivering her laugh lines and generating some genuine pathos about how she lost her husband to a younger woman.
Holt and Psomas carry less of the plot, so they have the chance to fool around a little more. They are lucky to have Stewart’s revolving set to gambol with. (Stewart is one of the consistently best set designers in New England.) Kenisha Kelly supplies bold and amusing costumes. Cecilia Durbin’s lights and Seth Asa Sengel’s sound compliment the proceedings nicely.
Still, despite the play’s laughs, it must be noted that the character of Alan doesn’t make much sense. He’s successful enough to have an apartment on the Upper West Side but he’s also a complete whack job. (Oh wait, isn’t there a Trump property on the Upper West Side?) Holt does his level best to make sense of the improbable mix of Alan’s traits. One of the highlights of the show are the few moments where he’s left alone on stage to kill time during a costume change. He’s a hilarious silent clown. Eden Malyn’s Kelsey is the only character here who knows what she wants. Luckily, she doesn’t get it.
No doubt Sex and Other Disturbances will be tightened up after this Portland Stage run. The ‘surprise’ ending is abrupt and comes off as contrived. (Perhaps it’s the tease for a sequel? Another I Love Lucy episode?) With sufficient revision — and given the aging of theater audiences, many of whom now see midlife crisis in the rearview mirror — Sex and Other Disturbances could well command the rom-com slot virtually every regional and community theater in the world yearns to fill.
David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.