Tuck Milligan as Man and Tracey Ellis as Woman in "Swan Song," one of the short plays by Debbie Pearl in "Sex."
Like the uneven romantic fortunes of a veteran dater, "Sex" plays like a series of disparate encounters that range from memorable to better-off-forgotten. Playwright Debbie Pearl first developed "Sex" as a series of exercises at the Interact Theater's playwriting lab. While its subtitle promises "a ganglia of short plays," some of these vignettes still seem like workshop pieces -- interesting ideas insufficiently developed.
Pearl, who boasts an impressive list of singing credits, is also an established writer for television, and the latter talent cuts both ways for her here. She keeps things moving and is conversant with the pop maladies of our times: gender confusion, moral evasiveness, AIDS paranoia and retail snobbery, to name a few. On the other hand, she reaches quickly for the easy laugh, relying on cliches and the one-two-punchline rhythm of contemporary sitcoms in order to sustain our attention.
"Swan Song," the first of the seven short plays on the bill, yields mixed results. It opens on a skittish, amusingly angst-ridden single woman (Tracey Ellis) who confides to the audience the abysmal lack of sexual prospects that have kept her alone for much of her "prime." It's an honest and sweetly funny monologue that she relates from a bed at center stage. The bed, we discover a few minutes later, belongs to a man (Tuck Milligan) she just met at a party and impulsively has decided to sleep with. When he enters, head bobbing with nervous enthusiasm, prattling about the plate of cookies he's assembled in anticipation of a post-coital snack, the two end up sitting together awkwardly under the sheets, their mutual panic rising. Regrettably, an ongoing shtick about his fuss-budget neatness is played for more than its worth and a sudden confession that he may be homosexual seems contrived. These elements derail a highly promising beginning.
Greg Mullavey does his best with "Interrogation," a ponderous, solo piece about a morally compromised cop. The solid talents of Gary Hollis and Karen Landry are ill-served by "The Teacher," which focuses on the infidelities and desires of a square, middle-aged couple that never rise above stereotype. As the pubescent object of Hollis' downfall, Linda Cardellini does a graceless turn as a one-dimensional Amy Fisher variation.
In what is really more of a comedy improv skit, Robin Riker and Joel Brooks hit some comic high notes in "Barcalounger." Much to the audience's enjoyment, they morph into different couples who are in the midst of pondering a department store easy-chair display. Brooks is good as an effete design maven aghast that his wife is seduced by the Barcalounger's tacky comforts, and Riker's feline beauty belies a strong talent for physical comedy.
By far the most tightly written, fully realized piece is the engaging "Making Love to Louise." In it, three men and a woman wax rhapsodic about their respective love affairs with the singular woman of the title, whom we never meet. We do encounter a pompous mid-level novelist (Brooks), a geeky but gallant emergency room doctor (Chuck LaFont) and a swaggering auto mechanic (Tony Denison). Riker plays Louise's current female lover, a prim straight arrow who finds herself blossoming under Louise's unique spell. Although Brooks' choice of an affected WASP-y accent proves an unnecessary distraction, all the performers hit the mark, especially Denison, who is both erotic and funny as "Vinnie," an endearingly sheepish but magnetic male bimbo who explains that he's "the kind of blue-collar guy that smart women like."
With "Sex," Pearl's apparent aim is to explore the desires and vulnerabilities that propel people into risky, sometimes life-changing situations. While a few of the seven short plays come provocatively close, the rest have the feel of one-night stands -- unsatisfying encounters that are forgotten the morning after.
"Sex" runs through June 22, Thurs.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 7 p.m. At The MET Theatre, 1089 Oxford Ave., Hollywood. Tickets: $20. (213) 957-1152.
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