The Unicorn mines pedophilia for jokes — and gets some

Lia Romeo’s play Green Whales, a sprightly, world-premiere comedy at the Unicorn Theatre, dares to roughhouse with this culture’s greatest sexual crime. Fortunately, Romeo is funny, and her cast (directed by Cynthia Levin) is funnier still — funny enough that even the two concerned septuagenarians sitting beside me on opening night couldn’t find a lot worth objecting to in the new millennium’s first romantic comedy about pedophilia.

There are no minors in the story or in the production. (Christopher Handley of Iowa just got six months in jail for owning manga comic books with drawings of schoolgirl sex, so this is a sensible choice.) Instead, wee Anna Safar, with great dark eyes and a smile wider than her face, plays Karen, a 38-year-old philosophy professor suffering from some rare strain of Turner’s syndrome that makes grown women look much younger.

Karen can’t find a date, so her sister, Joanna (played by Vanessa Severo), searches the registry of sex offenders to fix her sister up with a man who prefers his fruit unripened.

To pull this off, Romeo gets the sisters drunk. Soon Joanna is encouraging Karen to doll herself up in Hannah Montana gear and meet a potential pedophile at a coffee shop. It’s funny, but because the play often attempts to depict honest human feelings and behavior, it’s somewhat sour.

Worse, Karen soon slips into a bad habit that’s typical to romantic comedies: keeping a big secret from the new lover. She leads her confused paramour, Ian (Dean Vivian), to believe that she’s 13. Ian tells her that he feels uncomfortable dating a minor, so Karen’s reasons for perpetuating this ruse remain obscure. It’s not until deep in the third act that Romeo gives Karen a speech explaining this behavior.

The story fails to cohere, but the show is so funny that audiences might not care. Always a commanding presence, Severo continues the great comic streak that she began in last year’s The Clean House. Joanna is a one-time glamour girl shaken by being in her 30s, a failed actress now hoping to marry her cop boyfriend (Darren Kennedy) to give her life some direction. Watching Joanna unravel with all of Severo’s comic intensity is worth a ticket. Almost as impressive: the sheer number of amusing ways that Severo (and Levin) contrive to get Joanna pour herself a drink.

As Karen, Safar gushes, flirts and pouts like a champion coquette. But I wonder whether even Safar knows exactly what is meant to be happening inside Karen. Vivian, as the potential pedophile, puts across all the salable material that Romeo gives him.

Tabitha Pease’s revolving set allows Levin to stage some winning moments in between scenes, and costume designer Renee Garcia deserves the show-stopping guffaw that greets Karen’s ‘tween outfit.

Romeo hews close to sitcom and romantic-comedy convention, and there’s little to indicate that she does so in the interest of parody. She also manages to say little about her taboo topics except that they’re topics she’s comfortable joking about. But that isn’t quite true, either: Yes, there are shock jokes here, and good ones, but there are also too many excuses to justify that possible pedophile’s behavior.

Set in 1920s rural Connecticut, Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (now at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre) illuminates the hardscrabble farm life of Josie Hogan, one of those theatrical characters of Irish descent who forever reminds us that she is, in fact, fiery. And tart. Josie — played here with scrapes-herself-raw ferocity by Tanya Barber — storms about the grim and expansive set (designed by director Karen Paisley), pumping water from the land and scraping laundry against a washboard.

The audience is not required to perform such onerous labor: As the characters explain the significance of their drama, the show opens stiffly, the actors connecting with neither each other nor the audience. But once Forest Attaway arrives as Tyrone, a local drunk loved by Josie and renowned for his whoring in New York, that stiffness abates, and O’Neill’s old, sad words begin their old, sad dance. Barber and Attaway circle, fight, love and confess in the moonlight. The feeling that steals up between them is full and alive, tingling with possibility and complexity. Even their great reams of explanation can’t diminish it. It’s worth the sit.

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Categories: A&E, Stage