Review: In ‘Sex, Grift and Death,’ One-Acts That Test Perceptions

Two strangers on a park bench by the beach, partnering in a vicious dance of seduction. A woman from a family of swindlers, lying her way through dates with a wealthy new beau. Mourners at a funeral, and the deceased man himself, facing the frightening notion of the future and the afterlife to come.

These scenarios, explored in three short, wily plays — “Lunch” (1983), by Steven Berkoff, and “Hot Fudge” (1989) and “Here We Go” (2015), by Caryl Churchill — create a triptych about the ways we love, lie or steal, and how we may act when the realities of the world don’t suit our expectations. Produced by PTP/NYC (Potomac Theater Project), the one-acts are being staged together at Atlantic Stage 2, where they recently opened under the title “Sex, Grift and Death.”

In the first play, “Lunch,” directed by Richard Romagnoli for this New York premiere, a lonely salesman (Bill Army) spots a woman (Jackie Sanders) sitting on a park bench. The man approaches and begins an exchange — verbal but also physical, a pantomime of sex and combat — that reveals the primal urges that underlie courtship rituals.

Army makes a virtue of his character’s sleaziness, so that even his outpouring of distasteful stream-of-consciousness thoughts, mixed with his desperate cajolery and odious asides, take on a kind of charm as he conspiratorially winks and nudges in the audience’s direction. Sanders ‘s character her is aloof — calculating and willing to play the mating game but only on her terms her. She’s both a player and an umpire, engaging him one moment and enforcing imaginary calls the next. Their verbal attacks feel like barbarous blows: “Your expressions are the buried side of a stone, moving with strange fetid life,” she fires at him. He describes her as a “lump of fornicatory stew.”

A British playwright, director and actor, Berkoff is a kind of Shakespeare of invective, writing with a savagery of scorched earth warfare but also an alluring eloquence and imagination. A mad scramble of metaphors that activate the senses, Berkoff’s text for the two characters contains such indelicate imagery as “various succubi and incubi swarming” in a woman’s underwear, and boorish men in suits who “stream out like diarrhea” from their offices at 5 pm

Berkoff’s script is written in a kind of speedy Morse code with asides, dashes and ellipses, all delivered in an unrelenting pace onstage. Under Romagnoli’s direction, the play moves like a speeding train — so fast that it throws you off, making it hard to get back onboard, which is unfortunate, given the compelling content and performances. Romagnoli incorporates physical theater — the kind of interpretive range of movement that characterizes much of Berkoff’s work — but even the more daring choreography and tableau, like the woman ripping open her shirt or straddling the man like a pony on a horse ranch, feels tame in comparison to the language.

There’s a similar lack of punch in the Churchill works, both of which felt narratively incomplete and directionally imbalanced. “Hot Fudge,” the second play of the evening, begins with a family drinking in a pub and debating the best strategy for hustling banks out of money. Sonia (Molly Dorion) and her partner Matt (Gibson Grimm) lay out a convoluted scheme of deposits and withdrawals under fake names, but Sonia’s father, the cantankerous Charlie (Chris Marshall), praises the old tried-and-true stickup while his sloshed wife (Danielle Skraastad) makes crude jokes.

This band of thieves is fascinating — enough to carry a whole play — and the perfect example of Churchill characters, who are often eccentric and inhabit unpredictable worlds. But there’s a bait and switch: The introduction of these relatives only for them to be forgotten doesn’t surprise as much as the shift to the character with the least amount of lines in that first scene — Sonia’s sister Ruby (Tara Giordano), who is thinking of getting out. Still, that does n’t mean Ruby’s coming clean to her suitor her, Colin (David Barlow), who thinks she ‘s the owner of a successful travel agency. Instead she doubles down on the lies as they go clubbing with his pretentious rich friends his.

The last play, “Here We Go,” in its New York premiere, is similarly missing some bite. It begins at a funeral with several of the chatting mourners gossiping about petty matters and occasionally describing, in abrupt asides, when and how they’re going to die — whether in their sleep, by suicide or in a homicide. Then we hear from the dead man (Barlow, who gives a convincing performance, particularly in the ending), in a breathless existential monologue about life and death. The last scene, a solemn yet matter-of-fact couple of minutes of pure realism, is performed in total silence.

As with “Hot Fudge,” this play seems at first to pull us toward the mourners, and their fascinating moments of prophecy, but quickly disposes of them. Cheryl Faraone, who directs both Churchill plays, tackles them with an even hand, though the tone and pacing could do a better job of helping to steer us to an understanding of each play’s priorities. As presented, it is hard to discern which moments and characters should most grab our attention. And Churchill’s overlapping dialogue could be smoothed out in some of the production’s choppier moments. (Under tighter direction it can move in a satisfying rhythm of interrupted sentences, outbursts and exclamations.)

This production of short plays, which runs just under two hours, has hints of the remarkable among the more conventional moments. PTP/NYC (celebrating its 35th repertory season) goes for understatement here, aided by Mark Evancho’s minimal staging (one large projector screen; a bench and a lamppost in “Lunch”; and three smaller vertically hung projector screens, some stools and chairs for “Hot Fudge” and “Here We Go,” all on a stage roughly the size of a small New York City apartment living room).

Still, the text could be enlivened, even challenged, with more forceful direction. A night of sensual play, manipulation, machinations and tragedy courtesy of two fiery playwrights like Berkoff and Churchill should never leave a room as cool as it does here.

Sex, Grift and Death
Through July 31 at Atlantic Stage 2, Manhattan; ptpnyc.org. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes.

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