If all performance toys with the boundaries of public and private space, Ladies & Gents, currently playing at (yes) the public bathrooms by the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, does so with a unique impudence. It’s site specific theater at its cheekiest. Publicity materials bill the Irish play, an Edinburgh Fringe Festival hit, as a “live noir thriller” and indeed, moments of the production are truly frightening. It’s hard to imagine the play’s chills sweeping over its audiences were they seated in a cozy proscenium or black box. In a lesser production, the public-bathrooms-as-theatrical-stage concept would be a cute gimmick. In Ladies & Gents , written and directed by Paul Walker, it is crucial to the performance.
Ladies & Gents is a production ripe with ambiguities. The location feels at once dirty and dank (the cavernous public toilets are dimly lit by Sinead McKenna’s effectively earie light design) yet grandiosely gorgeous (the Bethesda Fountain, not to mention Central Park, rivals any Broadway house in terms of presentational beauty). A period piece (it’s based on a 1957 Dublin tabloid scandal), the play is fortuitously prescient (the scandal centers on tawdry politicians caught with prostitutes). Such dichotomies smoothly support the plot, which deals with double standards of class and gender in a society whose sharp social stratification leads to twin dangers of repressed desire and remorseless fury.
The disciplined ensemble masters naturalism necessary for a thriller that places actors literally a breath away from the audience. At the same time, they never sacrifice an otherworldliness appropriate both to the period of the piece and to the noir genre. The actors’ success is no small feat: the production requires them to run each scene six times over the course of a single evening.
Ladies & Gents embraces variables from the first moments of the production, when audience members are handed colored slips of paper. Black paper indicates beginning the performance in the men’s room; white paper the ladies’ room. After approximately twenty minutes, each scene concludes and audiences switch bathrooms in order to see the other scene. Both of the scenes raise questions which the subsequent scene answers. Still, the order in which audiences view the scenes inherently affects their experience of the production, going so far as to potentially alter how scary the thriller really is.
But the variables welcomed by the performance experiment don’t end with running order. To name a few: how does the seven o’clock performance, with the sun not yet set, differ from the nine o’clock, when the park is empty? How would rain affect the production? Snow? How might theatre-goers whose groups are split by the colored cards perceive the play differently than couples watching the play together? Is a men’s room filled predominantly with women different from a group made up of mostly men?
Although these issues will likely be explored many times over the course of the play’s two-week run, the performance space is small: only the actors will learn the answers first-hand. They will have earned the knowledge. Everyone else will have to be satisfied by a single performance. When that performance is a sharp, polished play staged in public bathroom, it’s hard not to be.