Pains of Youth

Local Arts Reviews

Pains of Youth: Sex, Sex, and, Well, Sex

Blue Theater, through April 26

Running Time: 2 hrs, 5 min

I don't know about you, but the greatest pains of my youth were sex and school, in that order, and in a way that's what you'll find in this iron belly muses production, in which a group of young, wealthy medical students in 1920s Austria have, well, a lot of sex with each other. Most plays, on one level or another, are about sex and death, and you get both here. A lot of sex and a fine dose of death as well.

The set that Kenny Gall has designed for Pains of Youth looks like it dropped right out of a German expressionist film. Hard, exaggerated vertical and horizontal lines in forced perspective frame a fireplace, a bookcase, a door, and it crowds out into the Blue Theater space, obliterating what is usually the first row, seeming off kilter and ready to collapse in our laps. With its multiple levels, it's effective not just for embodying the threatening atmosphere of the play, but for staging as well. A chaise lounge and a double bed provide ample room for reclining in a supine position, and recline these characters do.

Giving the impression that the play is all about sex would be erroneous, but I feel compelled to admit it ended up being all about sex for me. Somewhere in this mix is a story about postwar Vienna with Freudian overtones, but for a play written in 1924, the variety of overt sexual relationships astounded me: lesbian and heterosexual, with sadomasochistic overtones. Not being familiar with the work of playwright Ferdinand Bruckner, I felt almost prudish. I had no idea the Roaring Twenties roared like this.

I also feel compelled to admit that I love watching sex done well in the theatre. If an actor is going to commit the sin of indulgence for anything, it should be for sex. When done effectively, sex onstage is, at the risk of sounding naive, really sexy. I wish I could say most of the sex here was sexy. It was titillating, but sex onstage usually is titillating.

The lack of sexiness in the sex was more a symptom of a general lack of connection between the actors. The characters are an interesting mix: Marie has been sleeping with Petrell, who now wants Irene; the suicidal Desirée wants Marie; and Freder, an intellectual, wants practically any woman he sees, and is willing to pimp for them, if required. Most of the time, director Rebecca Nell Robertson employs a quick tempo and constant physical movement, and while the actors work it for all they're worth, the exposition, of which I'm certain there was some, got lost in the tempo, and I got lost as well. Also, because these characters were so busy moving around and talking fast I never got the impression any of them really wanted any of the others in a sexual way. Rarely was a scene allowed to sit still, and this included, or seemed to include, every scene about sex. That's regrettable, because, well, this could have been a really sexy thing to see.

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Pains of Youth, Ferdinand Bruckner, iron belly muses, Rebecca Nell Robertson, Kenny Gall

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