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(The) Violent Sex

Visions & Voices Theatre Company

at Chicago Dramatists

If someone could write about writing with one-tenth the intensity Roger Kahn brings to baseball, the literary world might have itself a new champion. But the process of actually committing words to the page and wrestling over grammar and spelling and meaning is universal only in its drudgery. That's probably why Dave Eggers abandoned his numbing investigation of process in favor of a turgid road trip-buddy movie pastiche a few chapters into A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

In (The) Violent Sex playwright David Scott Hay at least toys with the notion that writing about writing might be interesting. His protagonist is an impoverished novelist named Dan who spent a decade finishing up his first book and is beginning work on a second. Hay has obviously considered how to make Dan's struggles engaging without making him a stereotypical tortured soul, creating a mildly comic neurotic who's calculated that his hourly income from writing is 66 cents and who generally agrees with his best friend's assertion that "thief" and "liar" are synonyms for his profession.

Dan is at a pivotal point: he spends the first act soliciting advice on how to lead an adult life, alluding to the direction of his writing and the possibility of proposing to his live-in girlfriend. But we never actually see Dan write, though he should be outlining his second novel as his first is about to be published. Instead he paces around his work space nervously, looking for inspiration in a pile of comic books and other artifacts from his youth. He won't even allow himself to enjoy the party that's being thrown in his honor, which takes up the entire second act.

Hay's mostly naturalistic tack allows him no leeway when it comes to advancing Dan's story. The playwright can't fast-forward a few years or overturn the script in the second act. But he might have considered why spending so much time by oneself puts a strain on sustaining relationships, or why--when it comes right down to it--Dan doesn't seem all that interested in his own writing. Or, better yet, why the notion of the writer as suffering artist is bogus, a construct fabricated to sensationalize what is essentially a tedious private activity.

Instead Dan's story becomes predictably sensational. Hay completely dismantles his own intriguing groundwork in favor of hard-boiled Mamet dialogue ("Women don't want gatherers--women want hunters") and the usual titillation. The supporting cast of three characters--the girlfriend never appears--seems to be ripped from the pages of Penthouse Forum: Dan's best friend (married to his sister) is an unrepentant perv who gets off on attention from younger women, Dan's sister is a dull housewife who has a lesbian epiphany at a strip club, and his ex-girlfriend is a writer of erotica who moonlights as a dominatrix. In the end Hay's script suggests that stories about writers are interesting only when they involve fucking someone else's girlfriend on a pile of coats in a bedroom.

Jessi D. Hill's staging is excellent, bringing out whatever subtleties there are in (The) Violent Sex. Set designer Susan Kaip's detailed apartment clearly divides the spaces Dan has reluctantly allowed his girlfriend to invade from those he's reserved for himself, vividly illustrating his need for order and privacy. Brian Alan Hill as Dan suggests a self-deprecating, charming writer having an out-of-body experience as a regular guy, and Janelle Snow offers a nuanced, credible, heart-wrenching portrayal of his ex-girlfriend, whose continued devotion to Dan is the script's emotional axis. Hill cleverly transforms the intermission into a nervous flurry of preparations for Dan's celebration party: we're privy to the characters' conversations before the production melts seamlessly into the second act.

It seems that for Hay, (The) Violent Sex is about his own catharsis: in a program note he writes that the play is the result of a time when "I slit my wrists and bled into a notebook" after a personal crisis. The snappy rhythms of his dialogue are best suited to communicate his experiences, but this approach doesn't solve the problem of writing about writing--a challenge he might not have anticipated. Ultimately the script's contrivances are understandable: even Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation gave himself over to sentiment in the film's frequently reviled ending. Like Kaufman's screenplay, (The) Violent Sex races to its perfunctory conclusion in a way that only someone deeply invested in his own imagination could have dreamed up.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kat Ramslund.

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