Early in Micheline Auger’s Donkey Punch, frank banter and satirical jabs suggest the playwright has written a sex comedy. But Auger is out for more than just laughs. Gradually, in Audrey Alford’s production for the Ivy Theatre Company, the dramatist’s comedy-drama becomes a troubling look at the state of feminism.
Two women are the focus of the plot: the plump, wryly comic Sam (Lauren Dortch-Crozier), easygoing and unhappy with life, and her high-octane friend Kareena (Cleo Gray), who takes on the role of Sam’s mentor.
Kareena has recently put Sam in contact with Kyle, a man Kareena once communicated with online, but only briefly, before she met her boyfriend Teddy. Now also talking to Kyle online, Sam has discovered that he makes soft-core “horror porn” films; his latest is called Donkey Punch. Sam is reluctant to meet him because she assumes his work degrades women, but Kareena insists Sam is a prude and needs to widen her erotic horizons; she encourages a first date. (It’s at this point, ironically, that a role reversal briefly occurs. An unenlightened Kareena learns from Sam the meaning of Kyle's title. It refers to a sexual practice — bizarre and obscure, judging by the surprised reaction of the audience — that heightens a man’s climax during intercourse.)
Auger has a good deal of fun with the contrast in sexual awareness between the high-earning Kareena and the struggling, diffident Sam, who has hitherto worked as an actress in commercials. “You’re a strong and independent woman,” Kareena exhorts Sam. “You should have a dildo.” Trying to meet her on less intimate ground, Sam responds (with a delivery that evokes a laid-back Jo Anne Worley): “Better health insurance would be nice.”
Once Sam and Kyle (Jon McCormick) meet, a Pygmalion transformation occurs: Sam bleaches her hair, enlarges her breasts, and ends up the focus of a documentary that entails Kyle’s filming her wherever they go. The repressed Sam embraces life, but it upsets the worldview of the nominally liberated — actually controlling — Kareena.
Unfortunately, Kareena’s a hard character to like. She is taken aback when Sam begins to talk about her sexual exploits and realizes that Sam’s experience now outstrips hers. A career woman with a vengeance, Kareena declares, “There’s a lot of fish in the proverbial ocean and I’m hot and make a ton of money.” Her feminism is a tangle of contradictions: she advocates pole dancing as “good for your core…it’s totally liberating” but defaults to feminist mantras as well, such as “Bitches before bros.”
Perhaps the most objectionable thing about Kareena is her emasculating treatment of Micheal Drew’s sensitive Teddy. In Drew’s gentle performance, the strapping boyfriend cooks and attends to her tenderly, but never seems wimpy. Yet when Teddy tries to enter a conversation, Kareena rebuffs him with “We’re having girl talk.” When the accommodating Teddy declares, “I can be one of the girls,” she says, “No, you can’t.” (How many boyfriends would even make that offer?)
Although there’s little about Kareena that’s endearing or redeeming, it’s to Gray’s credit that one is able to feel the character’s confusion and pain even while withholding sympathy — and that includes after she is unexpectedly raped. (Crucially, she doesn’t protest; nonetheless, the sex scene is clumsily staged in a way that tries to be brutal and coy at the same time).
Meanwhile, Kyle doesn’t conform to any of Sam’s preconceptions. She expects him to call women “bitches” and “hos,” but McCormick, in a nicely understated performance, turns out to be quiet, thoughtful and confident.
Auger has created four fascinating characters, and situations that make one think, but she doesn’t really offer a diagnosis. Has feminism just created a huge muddle? Have the signals become so mixed, and the dialogue between the sexes so charged, that the old verities of feminism are no longer grounded in reality? Are men now just as much the victims? Auger’s coup is to provide an entry point of discussion.
Donkey Punch runs through Aug. 31 at the SoHo Playhouse (15 Vandam St.). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. on Wednesday through Saturday and 6 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $45 and may be obtained by calling 212-691-1555 or visiting www.sohoplayhouse.com.