Sexual Perversity in Prague
An irony concerning this production is that it undercuts the idea that the early Mamet is strictly “a language playwright.” The play worked perfectly, even though we don’t understand a word of Czech. The play’s interaction of characters tells the story perfectly—beyond language.
By David Mamet
Cinoherni Cteni, Prague, Czech Republic
19 June 2004
This is the best production of Sexual Perversity Jan and I have yet seen because it treats the characters and staging unexpectedly. The apt city grunge set reveals two corrugated metal, 1/4 round side panels, each about twelve feet wide and eighteen feet high. Chain link fence and a flat corrugated metal wall stretch across the back. In front, a perfect CTA bus stop sign (with trash basket attached) and a bench mark an urban space. Bernie tells his opening flak jacket story while he and Dan wait for a bus. The outdoor setting matches cartoons featured in the program, the director’s story-board version of the play. Later, the side curved panels are raised like garage doors to reveal Dan’s bedroom left and Deb and Joan’s apartment right; the middle doors open for “Litko Foto,” with computer and photocopying machine.
The sold-out audience of 160 for the Prague Premiere loved this production from the outset. Bernie (Jaromir Dulava) is very tall, thin, balding, and mustached; with black turtleneck, gold chain, black jeans, and leather jacke; he is very cool. He delivers most of his flak jacket story looking away from Dan, off into the distance, cool and reflective. When he gets to the sound effects, he becomes highly animated, illustrating the big zipper on the flack jacket. Dulava gives a wild ride of a speech, but Marek Talik’s Dan makes the scene work. A chunky, short actor, he listens to Bernie’s tale with Richard Dreyfuss-like concentration. He slowly grins as the story progresses.
The only interpolated scene comes next, illustrating well how the production’s lights and sounds augment the set to reveal telling gestures. As the sound of an arriving bus grows louder, the main lights go out; and Dan and Bernie move to get on the bus. Lights flash above left, and through a grate we see Bernie and Dan bump Debora Solomonov· (Lucie Pernetov·) and Joan (Ivana Chylokov·) getting off the bus. As lights come up on the next scene, at the bus stop, Joan picks up the contents of her purse from ground, while Deb stands with large artist’s folio. Dan meets Deb at this bus stop. Standing with his backpack, nerdy horizontal striped tee shirt, nylon jacket, and brown cord jeans, he is unable to speak. When his bus comes and she doesn’t get on, he stays behind, finally venturing to speak to her. Giving him wide berth on the bench, she says she’s a “lesbo.” By their next scene they’ve evidently slept together. Scene changers, wearing blue miner’s lights, raise the curved metal door to reveal Dan’s bedroom. Deb, in jockey undershirt and briefs, comes around a blue plexiglass shield behind the futon. Dan sits in boxers on edge of bed. As she lies on the bed, the scene begins: “Tak.” “Tak.” “Uh . . . tak.” Soon we note their pleasure. He lies with his head on her chest, so pleased with himself, and then she puts her head on his leg, as he sits up. Their delight is palpable.
Dan and Deb’s delight in one another plays very well against Joan’s bitterness and Bernie’s conflicted hostility and affection. At one point, Joan puts together a jigsaw puzzle on the floor while Deb raves about Danny. Fed up, Joan rises from the floor and stomps the pieces into place. Bernie seems genuinely shocked when Deb, at the bar, says she’s an artist, as if Dan has failed to tell Bernie about Deb. Later, Bernie delivers his soliloquy on Danny and “the broad” while working a punching bag, illuminated by a blue spot light. He visually rebukes audience members who laugh at his lines. Animals figure comically but pointedly in this examination of gender rivalry. When Joan chastises her toddlers for playing with each other, she wears a cow’s head and tail. As if to comment on Bernie’s story of his boyhood encounter with a homosexual, Dan pulls from a toy bin two teddy bears stuck together, front to front.
Dan and Deb’s break up comes unexpectedly because it starts lovingly with banter about shampoo, towels, and “Hokal” (hose), a word that gets funnier each time Dan, with increasing disdain, repeats it. In bed they now yell furiously at each other. The night time scene has him turning the light on and off five times, once even getting up to get water and sitting next to her. She doesn’t respond. At the end, he goes off and she sits up in bed as the overhead door comes down. When the door rises for their next scene, she sits in the same position and a new fight begins. The big shock comes after the break up: Dan sits at the end of the bed and Bernie sits up by the headboard, drinking from a bottle of scotch. Putting Bernie in the Dan and Deb space is a brilliant idea. Similarly, when Deb returns, Joan brings her breakfast in bed—clearly glad to have Deb back.
The final scene on the beach is disturbing. Dan (his arm in a cast from hitting the metal wall) and Bernie lie on towels with matching naked women on them. They lie down, sit up, lie forward, and rotate side to side, always watching imaginary women. The scene gets big laughs, but toward the end Bernie stands, clearly frustrated, and yells. Dan stands by, puzzled and then concerned. Bernie seems almost to faint at the end of his rant. Dan looks back and up to the subway grate that hangs above the stage, as if wishing to be back in the city.
This production oversimplifies Bernie and Joan, but this gives greater richness to Dan and Deb, who go through a lifetime of emotions in this short play. Bernie’s cool keeps him from chewing the scenery and allows us to note Dan’s reactions. Deb’s reactions to Joan show her starting to differentiate herself before falling back into the comfort of her friend. The men, curiously, have some physical contact, but homosexuality isn’t the subtext here. Rather, we are given a story of two young people, at first completely in love, who cannot handle their powerful emotions, and who are both devastated when the relationship fails.
An irony concerning this production is that it undercuts the idea that the early Mamet is strictly “a language playwright.” The play worked perfectly for Jan and me, even though we don’t understand a word of Czech. The play’s interaction of characters tells the story perfectly—beyond language. The 20-page program—full of illustrations (including cartoons of the King Farouk story and one of a naked Mamet) and quotes from John Lahr (on Mametspeak), Freud, Jung, Konrad Lorenz, and Ernest Borneman’s Encyklopedie Sexuality—embellishes this thoroughly gratifying production.
David K. Sauer
Spring Hill College