REVIEW: Sexual Perversity in Chicago

Sexual Perversity in Chicago – an appreciation.

Like the poster artwork, the design for this welcome revival is stylish and striking. Teal walls and furniture set off the terracotta trouser suits and other shades of red for the costumes.

This David Mamet classic takes us back to the sexually liberated seventies. In three dozen short scenes, he lets us eavesdrop on Danny and Deborah’s fragile affair, and explores the influence on them of their respective worldly friends, Bernie and Joan.

John Mabey, who directs, explains that his decision to cast all-female has less to do with the current enthusiasm for gender-switching than with the quality of the women who auditioned. But it does of course shine new light on the sexual politics, the mores and the misogyny of the times. There is a layer of interpretation, of judgement occasionally, between the characters and the audience.

The four actors all give fine performances, bringing out the angst, the frustrations and the contrasting attitudes of the two pairs.

We begin and end with Bernie and Danny, co-workers in an unremarkable downtown office. Bernie is what was called back then an MCP – male chauvinist pig – coarse, homophobic, but deeply insecure. Kelly McGibney captures him mercilessly – the man-spreading, the profanity, the egoism. Danny, though, is incredulous but curious, naive and impressionable, beautifully suggested in Heather Nye’s sympathetic performance. The set-pieces which bookend the 90 minute sequence are both very well managed – the steamy story of the flak suit and the jerry can – “nobody does it normally any more” – and the comically pathetic beach-babe-watching, with Danny now every bit as mindlessly sexist as his amoral mentor.

Meg Rowsell is Deborah, the commercial artist won over by Danny’s gauche wooing. A very believable character, perhaps the most realistic of the four.

Evie Lewis makes a wonderful Joan, friend and confidante to the younger girl. World-weary, sitting at the vanity unit, telling her fairy-tale fuelled by malt whisky and Marlboros, chastising kids in her class, rejecting Bernie’s unsubtle advances [and managing, with the tiniest of reactions, to draw our attention from his loudmouth chat].

Some of the best moments come when the emoting and the projecting is leavened with quieter, revelatory delivery. But there are countless memorable interactions: Bernie’s jealousy leading him to boast of exploits in Korea, his monologue on the efficacy of prayer, the awkward bedroom scenes, the blue movie, the salad.

The frequent black-outs lengthen the evening, but do give us a chance to relish some very apposite tunes of the times. The décor is bright and bold, though perhaps not quite grubby enough for the mood of the piece.

Mamet was 25 when he wrote Sexual Perversity in Chicago. This accomplished revival will, I hope, have introduced another generation to the early work of this seminal dramatist. The “language” may not be so shocking now, but the mutual incomprehension of the sexes is surely as timely as ever.

Michael Gray

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