Ron Simonian’s manly men nail Liquid Morality; Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre fizzles with The Lady’s Not for Burning

From the title, you might guess that the men of the three one-act plays comprising Ron Simonian’s Liquid Morality find right and wrong negotiable. That’s not quite it. Instead, for Simonian’s talkative hit men, strip-club proprietors and incarcerated johns, there’s a moral code that works out a little like the class-baiting of McCain’s Joe the Plumber bullshit. Here, honest workingmen are unashamed to admit to paying for whores and lap dances, while degree-holding relativists — such as the lawyer wonderfully played by Dean Vivian — can’t stomach being up-front about it. Instead, Simonian’s horny elites cruise up to streetwalkers claiming an interest in “conversation.”

Welcome to Simonian land — if an orgasm lasted more than six seconds here, as one of his hired killers points out, nobody would ever get anything done. In these extended comic sketches, the local playwright works his obsession with the hunt and the see-you-next-Thursday. The good news: Simonian is as funny as ever, if you can take all the scabrous, over-the-top dirty talk — and if you don’t take it too seriously. Simply staged but admirably shouted by cast members Scott Cordes and Tom Moriarty, this is the battle of the sexes as a masculine rant, a gifted comedian’s darkest monologue broken up into individual lines and assigned to a Greek chorus. It’s funny, it’s shocking, and it can’t tell the difference between telling hard truths and being an asshole. It’s mean and personal in ways that live theater too rarely is, and its raunch — never cut with sentiment — makes all those Judd Apatow movies go home and cry.

In At the Feet of Doves, Simonian crams his scenes with garrulous tough guys mouthing off about love as a transaction. While waiting for word on whether they should kill an unconscious hostage, two hit men discuss how wise God was to make the act of reproduction feel so good: Why else would an ape put up with all that “shit” from his ape “bitch”? (This leads one hit man to point out that female orgasm is an incidental bonus.)

In The Daily Grind, a state senator has a debate with a strip-club owner (a persuasive, put-upon Moriarty) over how best to handle a fundamentalist lawmaker set on shutting down sex businesses. Their answer is to argue that stripping is a feminist act. Unfortunately, this idea is dropped in favor of a jokey, from-nowhere ending.

Finally, there’s The Sting of Love, the most rewarding of the three plays. Moriarty and Cordes are at their best as johns busted in a prostitution sting, waiting around in a holding cell. Moriarty rages convincingly, and Cordes philosophizes about the simple decency of paying for sex. One by one, more men arrive, their stories varied and hysterical. All three plays are funny, but the first two tend toward ranting while this is finely calibrated.

Eventually, Vivian shows up as the lawyer who claims he was just looking for “conversation.” He’s roundly razzed for this, but in Simonian land, there’s a truth to this that goes unacknowledged. Conversation is why Simonian characters exist. For all this talk of the hunt, we never see the hunt itself and rarely do we hear from the quarry. The two female roles here (Lauren Lubow is feisty in both) are walk-ons designed to spur the plots (and the men) to climax: first, a dingbat stripper and then a lesbian so unbelievably in line with male fantasy that I hope Simonian is satirizing himself.

Stylized conversation also powers Christopher Fry’s great The Lady’s Not for Burning, the well-built farce now running as part of Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s most ambitious project yet: a one-two witch-immolation repertoire featuring this and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. While The Crucible lights the stage beginning November 6, The Lady’s Not for Burning has been crackling along for two weeks.

Sadly, Linda Ade Brand’s hectic, sometimes miscast production is a dreary muddle, with hard-to-understand actors over-enunciating (some in a Rennaissance Festival patois) and often stomping too hard as they trod their boards. For the first act, everyone moves twice as much as they should but generate half the power. As a mayor whose authority goes unheeded, Michael Masterson skitters and gasps cartoonishly.

Fortunately, Katie Gilchrist shows up as an accused witch, Jennet. If she doesn’t right the production, she at least gives drowning audiences something to cling to. She’s controlled, compelling and funny. (Of the large cast, Sam Wright, Kevin Albert and Dan Hillaker also achieve comic clarity, despite the general confusion.) This is a somewhat heady farce, one centered upon the imprisonment of a man who claims to be the devil and a woman who claims not to be a witch, that demands precision and a light touch. Gilchrist provides all of these — her every movement is meaningful. Too bad her best work is drowned out by the stomping.

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Categories: A&E, Stage