Sex Talk Gets Rough at the William Hall Library

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Ben Jolivet’s Get Rough With Me is a comical and enjoyable product of Rhode Island theatre

When Fifty Shades of Grey hit the shelves in 2011, it certainly wasn’t a watershed moment for literature, nor was it even the most noticeable kink in the thread of erotic fiction that has been dampening the brows of housewives and generally curious onlookers since well before Lady Chatterley’s Lover. What was significant about Grey, and probably the only comparison to the Harry Potter series we can imagine (bizarre fan fiction aside), was that it got the general public reading and talking about reading. Grey became appointment literature for women, something that quickly made it to the top of everyone’s bucket list simply because so many people were talking about it. Was it well written? Of course not, but that was beside the point. The short term effect of Grey was a temporary uptick in library cards and gift certificates to Barnes and Noble. The longer term effect, and more likely the one author E. L. James was shooting for, was to get women talking about their sex lives and, more importantly, what they felt may be lacking in that department. More readers? Better sex? Sounds like a success – at least until the men get involved.

Men felt disenfranchised by Fifty Shades of Grey, left suddenly inadequate in an area where they felt they were doing alright. Women felt empowered to demand more adventure, more passion and more spontaneity from a partner. Unfair? Perhaps. Worth discussing between consenting partners? Absolutely.  RI playwright Ben Jolivet has taken this scenario and turned it into one of the funniest and simply enjoyable pieces of theater that has been presented in RI in quite some time. At first glance, Get Rough With Me is a disposable comedy, but Jolivet’s ear for language and how people actually speak to and at each other, coupled with a wickedly smart and capable cast, makes this show appointment theater and a perfect foray into the scene for those who may not get out much.

Presented at the William Hall Library in Cranston, Get Rough is also directed by Jolivet who has wisely chosen not to attempt to turn the limited space into a substitute for a more traditional theatrical stage. The actual auditorium stage is relegated to boudoir-style set dressing (gauzy drapes, candles and fairy lights) while a single black silk-sheeted bed takes up the center of an otherwise bare floor. Like a scene from The Meaning of Life, it looks as if we’re about to witness a sex clinic (and in some ways we are) as suitable, soulful love music fills the air. Wisely, there are no crafty attempts at lighting cues or technicians running in for the scene changes; Jolivet keeps all the lights on at full, putting us in the same space as the actors swiftly, but unselfconsciously, rotate the bed into various configurations and allow us to catch up with them as to where they may be at any given moment.

The first of those moments sets the tone for the entire piece as coworkers Joanne and Kara sit in the break room and discuss Phases of the Moon, an erotic novel by author Lisa T.  Sherman-Albertson. Kara offers the book to Joanne, telling her “it will change your life.” Nancy Hoffman as Kara (and later, Lisa T. herself) is breathtakingly hilarious. While Kara is straight out of the depths of Johnston/Cranston, Hoffman’s performance is anything but two dimensional — think Joan Cusack in Working Girl — and here’s hoping Jolivet gives Kara a spinoff so we can see more of Hoffman in this role.  And, though we’re all in love with Hoffman’s Kara before intermission, she does not upstage Meg Taylor-Roth who turns in perhaps the best performance we’ve seen her in as the newly awakened Joanne, caught in the spell of Phases of the Moon and imagining a torrid affair with its central Fabio/Christian Grey character, Daniel.

Dillon Medina as Joanne’s mild mannered, but still adorable husband, Sam captures an easy rapport with Taylor-Roth that is partially due to such a well-penned script, but also a wonderfully understated comic timing that allows us to both sympathize with Sam when Joanne pressures him to be more aggressive and champion him for being truly one of the few “nice” guys out there. And then there is Jeff Hodge, who plays Sam’s co-worker and partner in Civil War reenactment, Dave (“We’re Union soldiers cuckolded by chick Lit!”). Dave is a wound up knot of anxiety and neurosis, driven over the edge by the same loss of manhood to Phases of The Moon that Sam finds himself experiencing. The two form a classic pair of buddies where Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton meet Jack Tripper and Larry Dallas. Hodge is allowed to revel in the most diverse set of secondary characters and when we eventually get to see Joanne and Kara hit the club scene in search of adventure, Hodges turns in a performance that is worth the price of admission alone.

Get Rough With Me is not all hilarity (just mostly) since the issues it brings up are serious to the point of disturbing. As Joanne increasingly marginalizes Sam in search of an elusive manly man who will take her “like a rag doll,” her fantasies of the fictitious Daniel grow ever more submissive in nature. Sam posits, quite rightly, “How is smacking someone around not abuse?” even when consensual? Safe word or no, Sam is simply not turned on by such prospects, and what Joanne conveniently forgets is that it takes two to tango. Joanne, however, is correct in proposing the idea that married couples can safely push boundaries by fantasizing, because, in the end, it’s not dangerous. Obviously, a compromise is in order and the play’s entire arc is discovering what that marital diplomacy may look like – only with more laughs.

Nancy Hoffman’s preshow speech coyly reminds the audience that “we realize you have choices when flying, so thanks for choosing us!” There is a glut of available theater in Rhode Island, as usual, and the list of companies, groups and one-offs is only getting longer. For those who may not go see much theater or who aren’t sure if they want to spend a lot of money to take a chance, you could do far worse than considering a visit to Cranston to see Get Rough With Me before it closes next weekend. Accessible, cleverly written and expertly performed, this is a play that I will actually try to see again, just for the sheer delight of it. It doesn’t get better than that.

Tyrannosaurus Rep theater presents Ben Jolivet’s Get Rough With Me – An Unromantic Comedy at the William Hall Library, Broad St. Cranston, March 7th – March 15th at 7:30 PM. Reserve tickets at www.tyrannosaurusrep.com

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