Editor's Note: Guest blogger Pamela Milam, MA, LPC, NCC, BCC, is a therapist, author and life coach who splits her time between Dallas and New York. She is the author of Premarital Counseling for Gays & Lesbians: Case Studies and Helpful Questions and a contributor to Rewire Me.
Let me start by saying three things, just to set the stage: I'm a lesbian, relatively sheltered in regard to sex, and not particularly sophisticated when it comes to art. Those three facts together made me possibly one of the most unlikely audience members at the Acorn Theatre's New Group production of a play called Intimacy. But I'm glad I went.
As the audience enters the theatre, the actors are already onstage. They are each alone in their separate lives, doing yoga, listening to music, singing softly to themselves, focusing on a craft kit at a kitchen table. All the while, a teenaged boy watches home movies playing on a loop on the wide-screen TV in the background.
The scene is ordinary. The audience trickles in and sees nothing unusual.
I was wholly unprepared for what happened next. (I'm a therapist and thought I was seeing a show about relationships. It was called Intimacy, for goodness sake, and I would like to think I'm an expert at that.) Fast forward a few scenes into the play, and I'm witnessing full frontal male nudity and later watching a completely naked 18-year-old female character speak candidly and encouragingly to her dad about porn and masturbation.
This show was bursting with simulated blow jobs, frottage, anal play, and fake (yet real-seeming) ejaculate that flew toward the audience. Those of us in the front row needed raincoats - there was at least one moment that felt reminiscent of a Gallagher concert, but the wet stuff flying toward the audience this time was not pulverized watermelon.
I went home afterwards and emailed my best friend. I wrote "TRAUMATIC!" and other such descriptions. It bothered me that I had not consented to see male or female genitalia - the blunt sexuality surprised and upset me.
It reminded me of the time I went for a massage here in the city and found myself, halfway into my massage, in an establishment that apparently provided full release services. I refused the full release, but still (to my horror and shame) had the polite, southern impulse to say thank you. I took out my credit card and paid.
The same thing happened with those theater tickets: I paid for them. And soon after the show was finished I thought to myself, "No! I didn't want that! Violation!"
With the massage, I decided to chalk it up to an experience, one that I could tell stories about - how I was a country mouse in the big city and bungled my way into a situation that was over my head. But I did march back over to the massage place the next day to convey my displeasure.
I went back a second time to the theater too, but not to complain. I wanted to understand it.
The morning after the first viewing, I found myself thinking less about the nudity and shock value and more about the themes of the play. There was something there. The playwright was actually saying something - and it might be of value.
Intimacy tackles all kinds of issues, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. It makes the audience confront their own assumptions and prejudices. As a viewer, you find yourself at first thinking that you're watching some wild stage performance, but in the end, you are thinking about important concepts like racism, sexism, grief, loss, gun violence, sexual bigotry, hypocrisy, and religion.
Most of all, this play asks us to confront our divinely private selves. I'm glad my own knee-jerk squeamishness didn't keep me from seeing everything Intimacy has to offer.
I loved watching Pat, the Berkley professor character played by Laura Esterman (who managed to stay mostly clothed for the whole performance), scrub her husband's excrement-remnants out of the toilet while lecturing him on feminism and equal rights. It was not lost on the audience that this enlightened woman still automatically cleans up behind her husband like a maid.
I was moved by Daniel Gerroll's performance of the character James, who struggles with the loss of his wife. His prayer scenes are alternately touching and amusing.
The most uncomfortable scene (two aghast and exclaiming female audience members on the row behind me can attest to this) was the brief episode where the naked daughter Janet (Ella Dershowitz) has a frank discussion with her father Jerry (Keith Randolph Smith) about pornography. It's a dream sequence, but the way she entreats her dad to accept things most people find unacceptable is so innocent and pleading and, well, bare. It turns the stomach and baffles the mind.
I found myself thinking about a common female fantasy: that of a woman being able to do whatever she wants without consequences, without judgment, without (here's the word of the month) slut-shaming. Then I thought about a frequent male fantasy: that of an old man who wants to enjoy the company of a young cheerleader who might fall lustfully in love with him and want to be with him forever. I thought about the misguidedness, the sadness, and the sweetness of such a wish. I thought about lost youth, and the conflict of wanting something you can never have, and about how taboos function in society.
Austin Cauldwell makes his professional debut as Matthew, a young man growing into his own sexuality and starting a career as a filmmaker. His scenes with Sarah (Dea Julien) are nothing short of endearing, and his later scenes with her father Fred (David Anzuelo) catch the audience off-guard with their plot-twisting frankness.
In the second act, the characters are hysterically funny. The young and older characters speak with youthful earnestness and celebrate each other and embrace, well, everything. Often, instead of adorable home movies, the TV in the background plays real porn - the kind most people have seen, but I hadn't.
While the first act is heavier, the second act is jolly and cheerful, challenging the audience with a utopian "what-if" vision: what if everything is really okay? What if we can all be more accepting? What if sex is not that big of a deal, and at the same time, what if it is everything?
But it also drives home the point that the outcome of those ideas, when taken to the extreme, can be laughable. The audacity of some of the statements made by the characters creates a ripple of hilarity in an audience that seems to have been holding its breath. They need to laugh, because this whole thing is weird, and there's two hours and fifteen minutes of it. They also need to laugh to remember that this is a play, these ideas are absurd, and real life doesn't work that way.
But they also laugh with recognition and relief.
The playwright creates a non-Hamlet ending: there are no dead bodies strewn across the stage, but living ones, all giggling, happy, wildly pleased with themselves, and draped across each other in the same bed. It was funny and delightful and bizarre. And I'm still glad I went. I think.
Written by Thomas Bradshaw and directed by Scott Elliott, the world premiere of Intimacy
boasts a courageous and talented cast including David Anzuelo, Austin Cauldwell, Ella Dershowitz, Laura Esterman, Daniel Gerroll, Déa Julien and Keith Randolph Smith. The New Group Production of Intimacy
runs January 14 - March 8, opening officially on January 29th at 7 p.m.
Performances are at 7 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, and Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Please note: This show contains nudity, sex and adult language.
Photos via Broadway World.