Clockwise from top: Mac (Michael Miyazaki), Shirl (Lucrezia Blozia), Karen (Judith Baicich), and Jake (Tony Greenberg). All photos by MV Jantzen.
This is not the feel-good show of the holiday season. If that’s your thing, maybe Ford’s Theater still has some seats for Christmas Carol.
Where Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem was about the banality of evil, playwright Justin Tanner’s Wife Swappers is devoted to the banality of perversion. The characters are not mass murderers – they’re rigidly, traditionally moralistic in any matters beyond group sex – but they’re still hard to empathize with, and watching them is more highway accident rubbernecking than connecting.
Wife Swappers tells a story that unfolds in a single evening in the home of Jake and Lorette, hosts to a recurring sex party attended by folks who are delighted to swap partners but are exceedingly uptight in pretty much every other way. When newcomer Karen wonders whether the boys ever touch each other during the lubetacular extravaganza the others recoil in horror and disgust. It’s a theme repeated several times in the work – these folks who wish they didn’t have to keep their alternative lifestyle on the down-low are completely unaware of the hypocrisy as they point their scorn and judgment at plenty of other marginalized groups.
Jake (Tony Greenberg) and Lorette (Catherine Aselford) trim the tree while Gina (Kris Roth) and Mac (Michael Miyazaki) watch.
Whether or not it pays off is going to hinge on what you look for in a story. I don’t need to like a character to feel invested in a story, but I need some hook to make me care. Is that their impact on the world in general? A sense that I’ve been faced with the same choices and problems they have? The fear that there but for the grace of god go I?
The characters in Wife Swappers had none of that for me, leaving me feeling a little disconnected from their fate and uninvested in their journey. Then again, much of my reaction to television shows lately is “jeebus, these people are awful – who cares what happens to them?” So you might take my reaction with a grain of salt. For all the over-the-top farce that we expect from the Cherry Red company – and which is delivered here, in spades – there’s some truth here up on stage. It’s just not a very nice or pretty truth.
The acting is all well done, which I’d call no small achievement. I’m not sure what would be harder – inhabiting a casually callous person or doing it in your underwear – or less – within a foot of the front row. There were a few more line stumbles than I’d expect for a show that’s been in previews for a few days, but it was only a minor distraction. More annoying was the deliberate choice to have the actors stand with their backs to the audience at multiple times. In a fifty seat black-box theater that made for a number of times when much of our view was blocked.
If you go, leave grandma at home unless she’s Ruth Westheimer. All the sex happens (loudly) off-stage but there’s no shortage of naughty bits on display and talk that would make a sailor blush. Depending on where you’re sitting in the audience you might be able to see Kris Roth’s tonsils… from the other direction.
Disclosure: I’ve always had a soft spot for Cherry Red’s grand guignol sensibilities and appreciate the part they’ve played in making DC safe for whackadoodle over-the-top shows. Co-director Kate Debelack is a friend, which wouldn’t keep me from blasting a show I hated but hey, you don’t know that.