Michael Edison Hayden’s The Books wants to be an offbeat love story about a professional dominatrix who falls in love with her agoraphobic client, but despite an intriguing premise, unfortunately it misses its target. When the play opens, Mistress Chimera/Helen, played by Aadya Bedi, has been servicing Scott David Nogi’s Mark O'Connor for several weeks. Her agoraphobic client is a maintenance man living in an Astoria apartment filled with books. While not so unusual perhaps in New York City to find a literate super (or being able to practically trip over a bookstore or library), it just doesn’t ring true that these two characters begin to fall in love after Helen asks him to borrow a book. There is little chemistry between them, not even in the S&M-focused scenes (despite excellent costuming by Shaumyika Sharma and realistic fight choreography by Mike Yahn), and their language sounds so stilted and affected, it’s as if the actors are reciting the given lines instead of simply being able to relate to one another. It’s unclear how dramaturgy by Benjamin Kessler helped or hindered, but something is definitely lost in academics here. It also smacks of (forgive the pun) the arrogant and self-deluded “the hooker wouldn’t take my money” tale, retread as “my dom doesn’t want to hurt me anymore,” which could have actually been interesting, if there was anything believable or redeeming about this pseudo romance. Looking at the script, which is filled with italicized words for the actors to emphasize in almost every speech, it’s as if the writer (and/or director Matt Urban) already had a predetermined performance in mind, instead of letting the actors find their characters. No wonder it sounds false.
There’s supposed to be a lot of pathos for Mark, the self-torturing would-be writer, but there’s really nothing given to his story or demonstrated to make him sympathetic, certainly not enough to show how sex-worker Helen, surely exposed to lots of “sad cases,” could fall in love with him while he shows little emotion. In fact, even the use of “the books” as the supposed vehicle for how these two characters come together feels empty, just another way to indicate literary knowledge, without going into any depth or actually using it to inform the work. The tag line, Love hurts, literally? Yes indeed, and so does this play.