THEATER REVIEW | Walking Shadow Theatre Company’s “The Sexual Life of Savages” doesn’t go all the way

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In a way, Walking Shadow Theatre Company’s current production of Ian MacAllister-McDonald’s comedy The Sexual Life of Savages makes me wish I hadn’t missed their production of Rebecca Gilman’s The Crowd You’re In With. Like Steve Moulds’ See You Next Tuesday and Neil LaBute’s reasons to be pretty, previous Walking Shadow productions I have seen, Gilman’s play was name-checked in the program note as another in a Walking Shadow series of presentations all dealing with “people figuring out who they are both as individuals and as part of a romantic couple.” Gilman, however, is the only female playwright on that list. Having seen three of these plays now from a male perspective, I’m wondering what I’m missing.Because Moulds’, LaBute’s and now MacAllister-McDonald’s play all congeal around a central plot where a man verbally abuses a woman and then spends the rest of the story trying to figure out what the problem is. The women are secondary to the men the in the working of the plot, and the women remain an elusive mystery. I’m not sure how useful that is as a narrative.

“We’re just knocking’ ‘em down like tin ducks in a shooting gallery.”

In this go-round, Hal (Joe Bombard) gets a little queasy when he realizes his girlfriend Jean (Meghan Kreidler) has had more sexual partners than he has. Almost every time he opens his mouth, Hal sounds more judgmental and stupid and hurtful to poor Jean, who keeps trying to have an adult conversation with him. Sure, Hal doesn’t mean to be a jerk but that’s not much of an excuse. Rather than try to correct his behavior, it just gets worse.

“If I had to guess, I’d say it had something to do with your slut-shaming her.”

Hal’s fellow teacher at the local high school, Clark (Nicholas Leeman), thinks Hal is adorably old-fashioned about it all, and feels like the guy should get over himself. After all, Clark and his wife regularly seek out threesomes on the internet and in local clubs, and their marriage is stronger than ever. Another fellow teacher, Alice (Clare Parme) applauds Hal’s traditional views on sexuality, so you know where that subplot is going. Or rather, you think you do.

“You should be happy you can’t find me on the internet. That’s a rarity these days.”

Meanwhile, at the hospital where Jean works, her lesbian friend and co-worker Naomi (Megan Dowd) is playing Clark to Jean’s Hal but in a slightly different way. Naomi figures Jean should stop letting Hal make her feel weird and truly claim all the things she’s done, rather than parse out what does and doesn’t qualify as sex. If it felt good and your body parts were exposed, even if you didn’t like the guy, even if you didn’t reciprocate, that should go on the list. And why should anyone be trying to keep their number of partners low? Sex is a good thing, right?

“Find someone f**ked up in the same way as you, and you’ve found love.”

MacAllister-McDonald’s play is a clever sort of anti-romantic comedy. It subtly takes almost all its key plot points from the tried and true structure of hundreds of movies and books and plays and TV shows where the guy and the girl find their way back to each other in the end. Except here in The Sexual Life of Savages, they repeatedly don’t. Reality, or rather this version of reality, trumps the sentiment of “love triumphs over all” at every turn. But that’s not because love doesn’t work. It’s because most of these people never loved each other to begin with. So rooting for them to get back together would be perverse. So the whole thing ends up feeling original rather than derivative. It’s a nice trick.  My hat is off to the playwright for knowing his genre target well enough to subvert it.

“It’s a penis. Under the best of conditions, it’s a fairly heinous appendage.”

All of this is fun as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go very far. The Sexual Life of Savages does a great job tearing down the traditional romantic comedy. But it offers nothing to replace it with. In an internet-saturated, disease-riddled culture that can’t decide if the government should stay out of our bedrooms and our bodies and what we do with them, or police them strictly to keep everyone in line, what does romance look like? What does sex between well-adjusted people look like? What is the opposite of slut-shaming? What is the opposite of virgins being terrified of sex? What is the opposite of people thinking their bodies are ugly and best shared with others as little as possible? What’s the opposite of men being horrible and women being neurotic? The Sexual Life of Savages has nothing to offer us in this regard. I know that shiny happy people and a complete lack of conflict don’t make for a compelling story either, but there has to be some middle ground between the two extremes.

“Our relationship is God, and no one threatens that.”

Hilariously, the open swingers’ relationship is the most stable—heterosexual marriage wins again! However, we never get to meet the wife. We also never get to meet the more monogamous half of the lesbian couple. And poor Jean disappears for almost the entire second act, and when she does resurface she’s mostly just there to listen to Hal talk—some more. Do any of us really need to hear guys like Hal talk some more? 

“That sounds dangerous.”
“Yeah, that’s why they call it fun.”

Why are we still listening to these idiots try to justify themselves with “it’s just the way I was raised,” “traditional family values,” and “why can’t you validate my level of discomfort?” Can we please start offering them examples—in real life and in the stories we tell—of alternate ways of living and interacting with other people and useful ways to engage the world that come from (dare I say it) a thinking person’s religion that isn’t simply a dumbed down list of dos and don’ts? We see you, Hal. We hear you. Honestly, we do. We’ve listened to you for decades. Time for you to catch up with the rest of the world rather than keep trying to drag it back where you are.

“Now a bunch of sanctimonious twats are upset that some parent was too stupid to password protect adult websites.”

The Sexual Life of Savages is a great production. The script is smart and well-paced and extremely funny. When it’s almost unbearably awkward to watch, it means to be so. Director Amy Rummenie gets great performances out of the entire ensemble. The whole play clips right along, and there are a number of surprises in the way the plot twists and turns. But when all is said and done it feels like the story is unfinished. Yes, a lot of romantic comedies are ridiculous and unrealistic. So… now what? It doesn’t seem like Hal’s learned much of anything by the play’s end. Yes, he has the good sense to try and apologize at least. (He, of course, does a backhanded job of it.) But as he tries to move on, I don’t see any evidence that he’s not just going to keep making the same mistakes over and over. So we watched this because…?

“Most lies are consensual.”

I don’t mind a production leaving me with questions. But if you’re going to tear something down, at least leave me a couple of building blocks with which to create something new. Of course, one could argue that any script that prompts discussion of the ridiculous status quo is a good thing. But can we please let the women talk now?

3 Stars – Recommended

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