Casandre Elyse Medal, Felicia Corbett, Tamara Dearing, Corey Long,
Zachary Burrell and Richie Goff in Great American Sex Play.
Photo – Louisville Repertory Company.

Great American Sex Play

Written by Brian Walker 

Directed by Gil Reyes

Reviewed by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2013, Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

Brian Walker is a clever enough writer that I think it no accident that this play title forms the acronym GASP. Or perhaps it is, since the title is so bold and declarative of its intentions that I could easily imagine it popping into one’s imagination fully formed – that the delicious acronym would so easily follow only confirming the power of the inspiration.

The play itself, here being given a second mounting by Louisville Repertory Company some six years after its premiere, is every bit as bold as the title, taking on a Very Big Topic (the nature of inherent sexual identity) in a vastly entertaining and adult manner that will delight many and scandalize some, although anyone scandalized by something called Great American Sex Play clearly wasn’t paying attention. Still, it is bound to happen, and if it does, the cast and crew should accept it as a measure of their success. This production is provocative with a capital “P” and proud of it.

GASPpulls the idea of a sex study out of the mid-century image of white lab coats and deposits it into the trappings of a game show (think Who Wants To Be a Millionaire). While Kinsey or Masters and Johnson strove to establish a serious, scientific atmosphere for what the general public imagined was a smutty business, this play embraces a reimagining of the sex study as a randy and Machiavellian endeavor that that does not objectively observe sexual behavior but instead seeks to influence it. It would be a disservice to say more about the plot, which manages to surprise us with its spin on liberal sexual mores while staying true to its core values of freedom and tolerance.

The cast attacks the material with gusto, bringing subtlety and nuance to characters who threaten to be representative mouthpieces if not exactly stereotypes. It is a tight ensemble who are asked to do some daring things onstage and never shirk from the task. Richie Goff, Zachary Burrell and Corey Long are the male subjects in the study, while Casandre Elyse Medel, Tamara Dearing and Jessica May are the women. All have fine moments onstage, yet I must say that Mr. Long and Ms. Dearing seemed to discover some deeper, sadder truths in their characters that linger in my mind a bit more. It also should be noted that Ms. May, originally cast as one of the freaky attendants monitoring the subjects, was pressed into service for the larger role of one of the subjects after another cast member was taken suddenly ill the day of the opening performance. Forced to take the stage with script in hand, the actress acquitted herself admirably, never allowing the pages to distract from the action (indeed, I soon forgot she had them) and delivering a robust and vivid characterization. As to whether it will be Ms. May in other performances or the ailing Felicia Corbett remains to be seen. I would be interested to see Ms. Corbett’s work, but the company managed a difficult circumstance professionally and were lucky to have a cast that could roll with this punch.

The study attendants were a curious bunch of control freaks, with Jesse Barfield and Kelly Kapp delivering particularly funny and well-drawn eccentrics, and with Ms. Kapp’s subtly robotic movements around the stage a real lesson in physical comedy. Director Gil Reyes, stepping in for Ms. Mays, was also a sharp and disturbing comic presence. Their costumes (by Cynthia Coomes) were interesting in that the white lab coats were replaced by clear plastic gear that suggested fetishism and the necessity of protection against an onslaught of bodily fluids – an appropriate yet menacing touch.

The other design work was mostly spare and carefully selected, with a fascinating sound design by Scott Anthony that made good use of animal noises and lights by Angela Bell. I never saw the original production, also directed by Gil Reyes, but this version is staged with great economy; every element has a purpose and the action is pointed and focused.

Mr. Walker seems to be exploring the tension between traditional social custom and a permissive popular culture and how it shapes our sexual identity. The details of his scenario, in its increasingly foreboding totalitarianism, lean towards science fiction in its larger cultural perspective; and the final scenes are a heady, exhilarating journey of self-examination of American sexual identity that lift the material above sexual hijinks. You come to Great American Sex Play expecting naughty fun – frank dialogue, simulated sex acts, and full frontal nudity all tied together through humor – and you leave with your awareness raised and your intellect stimulated in unexpected ways.

Great American Sex Play

May 16, 17, 18, 20, 23, 24 and 25 at 8 p.m.
May 26 at 2 p.m.

$16; $11 on Industry Night (May 20). 502-584-7777. Or, save box-office fees by using The Kentucky Center’s drive-through ticket service.

Louisville Repertory Company

The MeX Theatre, The Kentucky Center

501 West Main Street

Louisville, KY 40202