In the program that accompanies Sex and Violence, Travis Barker’s new play, the playwright admits that it was no less a source than his father who encouraged him to write a play about, well, sex and violence. Discouraged that his previous work, The Weatherbox, hadn’t transferred up to Broadway, or even Off-Broadway, his father purportedly suggested that those were the only two surefire draws for a massive audience. Appealing to such prurient interest may indeed get people in the door, but it isn’t necessarily enough to keep audience members in their seats, and that is precisely where this play errs. This four-character relationship drama may aspire to the fire of a David Mamet play, but it only manages to simmer at a low boil for its duration.
Marshall Mays directs this Kaleidoscope Theater Company production at Theater 3 in a sleek production designed by Arnold Bueso, but looks can only account for so much. Barker presents plenty of what, here: Jimmy (Jake Millgard) is married to Clair (Lauren Roth), who’s been cheating on him with the reptilian Chris (Tyler Hollinger). One night when Chris and Clair step out, Jimmy pays a visit to Molly (Kendall Rileigh), Chris’ aloof girlfriend. This evening, as one might expect, takes some disastrous turns involving, yes, both sex and violence.
But what Barker forgets to provide, and what ultimately makes Sex a hollow work, is the why. Why did Clair and Jimmy marry? And if they were at one point aligned, where did things go awry? Why does Clair tolerate any of Chris’ shenanigans? A work this gimmicky could get away with an emaciated plot only if it provides plenty of meat for its characters, but alas, Sex comes up deficient in that arena as well.
Tonally, Sex plays awkwardly as well. Baker’s mix of darkness and humor is awkward, and as events grow more dyspeptic, the play becomes downright off-putting. And yet, the play’s second act is an improvement over the first, which feels too static, consisting of little more than two distinct couples taking turns in separate scenes on opposite sides of the stage. Every time Sex focuses on Chris and Clair, for example, Jimmy and Molly are left alone on the dark for long stretches, and vice versa.
Nonetheless, while most of the play’s action occurs in the second act of Sex, there’s too much of it. Baker presents the theatrical equivalent of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. As the number of sexual and violent acts climbs (with considerable overlap between the two), with no allegiance to any character nor organic escalation of plot, there is no payoff.
In the past few years, Hollinger has proven himself to be one of the most vital presences on the New York stage, and he injects Chris with the appropriate amount of hedonistic sliminess. Rileigh, too, demonstrates mastery in her performance of a wounded soul.
Millgard and Roth, though, are saddled with far less-defined roles, since Clair and Jimmy don’t quite make sense as individual characters nor as a couple. Of the two, Millgard fares better, suggesting how being one of life’s perpetual also-rans can cause one’s fuse to blow. I’m curious to see what Roth can do in a different role that proves to be less contradictory.
In the end, Sex subverts its author’s intent. This kind of play should leave audiences hot and bothered. Instead, all it provides is a winter chill.