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Robert Abrams
Theater Reviews
Connelly Theatre
United States
New York City
New York
New York, NY

The Text of Sex – a play by Michèle Aldin Kushner presented in Fringe NYC 2014

by Robert Abrams
August 21, 2014
Connelly Theatre
220 East 4th Street
(Between Avenues A and B)
New York, NY 10009
You either have a teenage child who has a smartphone, will have a teenage child who will have a smartphone or know someone who has a teenage child who has a smartphone. Go see "The Text of Sex" and then talk about it with a friend. And always think twice before hitting "Send".

"The Text of Sex", written by Michèle Aldin Kushner, was painful to watch. The show often made me uncomfortable. It was live theater, so I couldn't leave. It was exactly what drama that takes on society's difficult issues is supposed to be. I would see "The Text of Sex" again. (Actually, this was my second viewing – I had seen it before as a staged reading.)

One way to assess a performance is to observe the audience. The audience at tonight's performance of "The Text of Sex" laughed throughout the play. This laughter of release was evidence of the play's tragic power.

"The Text of Sex" tells the story of Delilah, a reserved 16 year old high school student, played with intelligence and sympathy by Julienne Jones, who, at the urging of her worldly high school pal Jenna, played with evident inner pain by AC Horton, has Jenna shoot semi-nude photos of Delilah on a cellphone, and then sends them to her future perfect boyfriend Jason, a classmate played with complexity by Mason O'Sullivan. Someone sends the photos on to others in the class, and one crisis after another ensues.

Release is often furious and loud. Here, one of the best moments of release was a quiet conversation between daughter and father.

I liked the alternation of scenes with dialogue and scenes with monologue. Delilah and Jenna's signature gesture, a thumbs up okay crossed with an over the head fist pump, was brilliant. The contrasting personalities of Delilah's parents, Tom O'Keefe as Dock and Patricia Randell as Bette, gave the play added depth.

There was no actual dancing in the show to speak of, but there were several references to dance. Delilah had a ballerina toy chest. She and Jenna would go clubbing, where, presumably, they would dance, although likely not Foxtrot. There is a scene in which Jenna is asked whether she is doing a new dance routine as she covers for Delilah, who is hiding uncovered behind the couch, but it is not really a full dance routine.

Some of the argumentation in the play was carried through analogies to biology, such as the behavior of bees. The characters may have acted without thinking of the consequences, but they were paying attention in school.

To some degree, the part of the play you may notice most is the tension and stress from the intertwined, but independent actions of the society's absurd overreaction to impulse and the parents failing marriage (which was as much a source of beautiful dramatic uncomfort as the discussion of sex, nudity and indiscretion). The more important message of the play, which is perhaps quieter, is that Delilah grows after her impulse – that growth is possible.

"The Text of Sex" ends with a lovely button, which I am not going to give away.

So what now? "The Sex of Text" works as a self contained show – the audience can walk away feeling enlightened and entertained, but I think it can also inspire discussion and action, for those who are willing. A supporting curriculum ought to be developed.

The show asks some important larger questions, such as "What is private?", that deserve ongoing discussion.

These days, some argue, you are better off building a platform than just creating content. I think "The Text of Sex" has potential to be a platform. For instance, if an African-American were cast as Jason with an otherwise white cast, it would likely change the tension in the play, even if the text of the play remained the same. Or what if the offense were political rather than sexual, such as a student taking a picture of herself in a headscarf at school in a country where that is illegal? Or, to be absurd for a moment, what if Delilah were a movie star instead of a high school student and she was arrested for only sending around pictures of herself fully clothed (and thus violating the unwritten law that female actors, if they want to be successful, must periodically take off much but not quite all of their clothes)?

If "The Text of Sex" has a problem, it is that its central plot point seems a little absurd. Yes, there ought to be consequences for a student sending nude photos of herself, probably on the grounds of self-endangerment and school disruption, such as reflection and maybe suspension or the equivalent of the training classes that people who violate traffic laws are made to take, but arrest and possible jail time, really? On the other hand, truth can be stranger than fiction, as they say, and there is plenty that is absurd in our society, so I am willing to believe that the events in the play might take place. How to address this? The play as it stands is quite good, so it doesn't necessarily need improving. On the other hand, sometimes the way to go from good to great or great to greater is to tear it apart and try something new. My solution would be to have real lawyers write briefs for Delilah and her mother on the one hand and the school on the other. Maybe stage a mock trial. This might reveal tweaks that could be made to the technical details of the case to make it as tight as a Law and Order or an NCIS episode, and maybe form the basis of a spin off play called "Lawyerland". In any case, this would solve the real problem with the play: that the program notes are too short. Mrs. Kushner should strive to emulate George Bernard Shaw by writing really long program notes, and legal briefs would fill this gap. The audience doesn't necessarily need to read them, they can just know they are there. I will leave it to the reader to decide whether I am kidding or not.

There were some small things that resulted in nagging questions. For instance, early in the show, Delilah's parents supposedly took away Delilah's phone, but in the next scene she had it again. There were a few moments that perhaps could have been tightened up. An audience member standing on the sidewalk after the show was overhead questioning how Delilah could be charged as an adult for sending child pornography of herself. These are worth thinking about for the next version of the show, but overall they were minor flaws, if that. And if we really want to get picky, the father's name is "Dock", but nowhere in the play does anyone spell it. I went through the whole play thinking it was "Doc" as in "Doctor" when it may have sailing connotations, maybe. A 20 page essay in the program notes is probably the best way to fix this problem.

"The Text of Sex" is very topical. In a world that has grown fearful, sometimes for good reason, the penalties for infractions have often become absurd. Sometimes those penalties may close the case without solving the underlying problems. Drawing people's attention to the challenges of parenting in this fearful world is a valuable service. As a play, "The Text of Sex" is a good way to draw people's attention because it lets the audience step out of their lives and consider difficult questions. It may be easier to start discussing the actions of fictional characters openly and clearly than it would be to start discussing relatives. It is far better to consider the questions now, than to wait until your child walks through the door at two in the morning.

"The Text of Sex" contains one brief moment of nudity under a strobe light and some strong language. In this sense it is like an R movie, but it is more the concepts than the depiction that suggest sensible parental consideration as to what age is appropriate to see the show.

"The Text of Sex" was presented by Lucky Pelican with Taylor Lane Ross as part of Fringe NYC 2014. It was directed by Bruce "Master B" Baek. ACR, marketing and publicity was by Taylor Lane Ross. Kelly Caitlin Sullivan was the stage manager. Sound and lighting design was by Regan Riggs Hunte. The wardrobe was sponsored by Danny Joseph New York. Music was by BETH ("Moth" lyrics by Beth Strome Solin, song by Beth Strome Solin and Shannon Winters, guitar by Shannon Winters, bass by Nash Aliago, and drums by Konrad Meisner).

For more information about Michèle Aldin Kushner's work and future performances, go to www.MicheleAldinKushner.com.
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