Psycho/Sexual

Nelson Avidon's new play, Girl in Heat, now at the Michael Weller Theater, isn't so much a fresh skirmish in the war of the sexes as it is a recap of the conflict's main themes. She's crazy; he's horny. Mind games and clumsy flirtation—the former by her and the latter by him—unsurprisingly ensue. It's tempting to dismiss the piece reflexively, the same way you would wave a hand at a friend telling you something you already know. And if Girl had been cast any differently, this might indeed have been the best way to salute both its coming and its passing. But someone, either Avidon or director Robert Walden, had the good sense to cast Avidon himself and the wonderful Cheryl Leibert. What might otherwise have been as erotically charged as a student essay on Freud becomes, in their hands, less a two-dimensional map than a light sketch of familiar territory. In their best moments—the ones where they are man and woman, instead of "man" and "woman"—you can practically smell the pheromones in Avidon's script.

Given the general lawlessness of the gender war, it's a welcome comedic touch to stage this particular tussle in a lawyer's office. (The richly convincing set is by Maya Kaplun.) Joseph (Avidon) is a litigator coming up for partner in his firm and a married man. Marilyn (Leibert) is a young temp in the last hours of her summer employment. After everyone else in the firm has left for the night, she invites herself into his office for her particular brand of face time with the boss. The erotic tête-à-tête that follows alternates between playful Eskimo kisses and brutal, emotional head butting.

The imbalance is clichéd. He has everything to lose—wife, job, future—while she has nothing, not even (surprise, surprise) her sanity. But underneath its conventions, Girl is entertaining for spotlighting the irrationality at the heart of the human mating dance, particularly on the male end: just how much abuse and manipulation will a man put up with when the carrot of sex hangs, he thinks, just within his reach? The question is practically a part of testosterone's chemical composition.

And if Joseph is any indication, the answer is: quite a lot. Marilyn begins to break him down almost before she's opened his door, mostly through an aggressive insincerity that Joseph is too libidinous to take offense at. As she asks after an exceptionally nasty mood swing, "We're playing games, aren't we?" "Sure," he responds, perhaps a touch too lightly. "Well," she presses, "where's your competitive spirit?"

Elsewhere, after one of her more disconcerting maneuvers, Joseph is left to gawk. "Where did you come from?" he asks, to which Marilyn will only offer, "From reception." Leibert is a torrent of inappropriate emotion; it's a pleasure to watch her sweep the buffoonish Joseph away.

For his part, Avidon uses his wonderfully expressive face to chart Joseph's slow slide backward—as he submits himself ever more fully to Marilyn's wiles—until he has landed squarely in his long-past teenage years. "This is what I thought sex would be like before I had sex for the first time," he giddily confesses while Leibert looks on at him with inscrutable, cold eyes. She is his captor. He is the willing captive. Avidon is cheekily walking us through the Stockholm syndrome of the dating man.

It's a shame, then, that Avidon the writer doesn't walk us as far as we could go. Girl is only two-thirds of a decent play. Questions about what effect the various secrets and bodily fluids swapped by the pair will have on both their lives—in his case, professionally as well as personally—are brought to a fever pitch, only to be abruptly tied off in a nice, writerly bow. A little messiness can be a virtue, however. If Girl in Heat needs to be tied off at all, I would have preferred a tourniquet.

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