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Shopping and Fucking
by Les Gutman
If the title doesn't frighten you away; if the signs outside the theater warning of explicit language and sex don't send you running to the hills; if simulations of (unsafe) homosexual sex don't offend you; if the sight of blood, regurgitation and a food fight that can extend into the first row of the audience doesn't gross you out; then by all means sit back, relax and enjoy the show. Although it's certainly not bad (and certainly not as bad as I've made it sound), like the two activities mentioned in its title, this play isn't always all it's cracked up to be either.
Spectacularly successful when it opened in London last season as the first play of the young playwright, Mark Ravenhill, New York Theatre Workshop has staged Shopping and Fucking with an American cast co-directed by the prominent British director, Max Stafford-Clark, who directed the original. For all of its calculated effort to shock, it's a pretty stale affair. A parade of prostitutes, junkies and sex slaves is not particularly bold theater; and, as to the use of "the word the New York Times dares not speak," what would be truly shocking would be a contemporary play that left it out.
I happen to take great delight in subjecting myself to unsettling experiences in the theater. That denizens of the waning years of this century are conflicted about things like money and success, relationships and affection (and the idea that the two are related) is not mind-blowingly revelatory. That's about as explosive as this play gets (unless you are surprised to discover the world includes people with what I'll call unconventional sexual appetites or drug habits).
A play need not shock in order to be good and, as I said before, if you wade through all of the nonsense, this one's not bad. Ravenhill writes well, sometimes eloquently, even bordering on the poetic. In a recent interview, he acknowledged that he worships at the altar of Mamet, and it shows. He structures scenes well, and chooses his words carefully. He has a point-of-view; I'm just not sure he has a fully-developed point.
The five characters are a desparate bunch, and their lives are unsatisfying. They don't offer a lot for the audience to embrace. Lulu (Jennifer Dundas Lowe) and Robbie (Justin Theroux) live with, and serve, Mark (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Bearing a resemblance to a lighter version of the late Chris Farley, Mark is possessed of enough chemical and sexual dependency issues to keep several clinics busy. Although he has supported himself, his retinue and his habits, the latter are catching up with his wallet. Lulu and Robbie seem to be aware of few money-making ventures that don't involve sex or drugs. The other two characters don't offer a great deal of contrast: Brian (Matthew Sussman), a combination philosopher, drug-distributor and film-maker, and Gary (Torquil Campbell), a prostitute with whom Mark connects, who has a particularly unpleasant idea of how someone can show their love for him.
In a perverse way, Gary is not only the centerpiece of the play's putative shock value, but also its moral lodestar. Ravenhill is so fascinated with sensationalizing that he squanders the opportunity to make much of a meaningful comment through his character. It's like being invited to a party where you never get to talk to the interesting guest: you might have a good time watching everyone, but it's not likely to be a memorable evening.
All of the actors are well cast, and perform with sometimes creepy precision. They even do well by the British accents which seem unnecessary but are utilized anyway. The direction is energetic and yet disciplined, maintaining tight control without letting it show. The sets consist mostly of various floral-printed surfaces and an enormous wall of neon letters which are lit to tell the audience either where the action is, what is going on or what sentiment is being expressed.
The playwright has styled himself a sexual contrarian and a "post-gay" man. He has anticipated (in a New York Magazine interview and probably elsewhere) that gay audiences will dismiss his show because the images are so negative. Nonsense. He would be well-served by spending less time posturing and more time developing his theme. He has talent, if he can marshall it, but there's little sustenance to be gained from this sort of conscious speculation about how one is going to be perceived. It feeds a notion of superficiality that is distracting.