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Hot 'n' Throbbing

Some plays only daughter can write. . .obscenity begins at home -- from Paula Vogel's introduction to Hot 'n' Throbbing.
I try to figure it out. All the time. Why I stayed with it so long. It's funny -- I always asked why I stayed--I never thought to ask how you could act that way -- Darlene, to the abusive husband who's forced his way into the home in which she is trying to keep her daughter from following in her footsteps with money earned from writing erotic film scripts.
Lisa Emery and Elias Koteas
Lisa Emery and Elias Koteas
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Paula Vogel's Signature season concludes with Hot 'n' Throbbing, a play written in 1994 in the manner of a noirish thriller. The exploration of violence and sexual excesses in the home and all around us fits right into our daily diet of print and television news stories. It's dismayingly timely coming as it does after a week with headlines ablaze with a dysfunctional Minnesota's teenager's multiple shooting spree and suicide.

The surreal cinematic elements are connected to the central character's job. Charlene (Lisa Emery) is a single mother in her late thirties who, after years of being beaten and knocked about by her shiftless, alcoholic husband Clyde (Elias Koteas) kicked him out and, in fact, obtained a restraining order to prevent his return. She supports her troubled teenaged children -- the rebellious, headed for disaster Leslie Ann (Suli Holum) and the unsocialized bookish Calvin (Matthew Stadelman) -- by grinding out steamy scripts for Gyno Productions, a feminist film company that defines its output as erotica rather than pornography. As Charlene's fingers race across the computer keyboard, they are guided by her inner thoughts which are made concrete by two imaginary but vividly visible characters, Voice Over (Rebecca Wisocky) and Voice (Tom Nelis). They come on stage without regard for conventional doorways, often moving through window or patio door or pushing aside walls.

Whenever these surreal echo characters appear, the ordinary living room is bathed in a red light. Voice Over besides narrating Charlene's story-in-the-making also acts out the role of a foxy dominatrix in a porno club (red lights = fantasy red light district). The Voice mainly functions as a detective who could have stepped right out of the pages of one of Ramond Chandler's hard boiled crime stories.

The other character to disrupt the surface normalcy of Mark Wendland's purposefully nondescript townhouse is the husband. Whether it's the Voice and Voice Over gliding in and out or Clyde breaking open the front door, it's clear that Charlene, while stronger than she once was, and with a gun ready to be used, still is not sufficiently in control to keep her little fortress from collapsing like the perennial house of cards.

You can't ever accuse Vogel of not daring to tackle a serious subject -- often several at once -- imaginatively and with at least some humor. In the process of tackling this play's pivotal domestic violence theme, Hot 'n' Throbbing also takes on general questions relating to obscenity (which according to Vogel "begins at home"), how cultural conditioning predisposes women to accept imbalanced and violent relationships and the deleterious effect of being witness to sexual and physical abuse on normal family bonding and emotional development.

Les Waters, who also directed the Signature's Baltimore Waltz has successfully fused the surrealism and realism, but he's done little to give the play a less unfinished feeling and to keep it from unwinding more in slow motion than in keeping with the thriller genre. Lisa Emery is an impressive Charlene. Rebecca Wisocky is as slinky a sex kitten as you could wish for, and Tom Nelis a splendidly creepy Voice. However, the cinematic freeze frames and cuts get tiresome after a while and come at the expense of our involvement with the characters. As for Elias Koteas' Clyde, he never makes us see just why he still exerts a hold on Charlene or, for that matter, why he was hired for this role. Suli Holum is okay as the rebellious Leslie Anne and Matthew Stadelmann even better as the bookish, voyeuristic Calvin. Unfortunately it's hard to buy the playwright's optimistic scenario for their future.

Paula Vogel is a playwright whose ability with tough subjects won her a Pulitzer for How I Learned to Drive. Hot 'n' Throbbing, while delving into similar territory, relies too heavily on its hot red stylishness which makes it interesting without ever really making our hearts throb.

The First of Paula Vogel's Signature Season Plays: The Oldest Profession & Baltimore Waltz
Mineola Twins
How I Learned to Drive
The Long Christmas Ride Home

Written by Paula Vogel
Directed by Les Waters
Cast: Lisa Emery, Suli Holum, Elias Koteas, Tom Nelis, Matthew Stadelmann and Rebecca Wisocky.
Set Design: Mark Wendland
Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi
Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel
Sound Design: Darron L. West
Running time: 90 minutes without intermission.
Signature Theatre Company at Peter Norton Space 555 W. 42nd Street (10th/1th Avenues), 212/ 244-7529,
From 3/08/05 to 5/01/05; opening 3/28/05
Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8pm, with matinees on Saturday and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets:
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 3/26/05 press preview
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