Michele Federer and Remy Auberjonois in Anon
(© Monique Carboni)
Michele Federer and Remy Auberjonois in Anon
(© Monique Carboni)
Just as one shouldn't judge the proverbial book by its cover, one shouldn't judge plays from their first scene. The opening minutes of Kate Robin's intriguing if highly problematic Anon, now ensconced at Atlantic Theatre Company's Stage 2, play out like the first chapter in the boy-meets-girl-in-a-cute-way handbook. But the ending -- not to mention the rest of the book -- is not what you expect.

Trip (Remy Auberjonois), a seemingly prosperous bachelor, has called Alison (Michele Federer) over to his loft to get his cat to stop peeing on his bed. While tackling the matter at hand the pair spar a little, order dinner, banter some more, and are soon, as they say in The New York Post, canoodling on the couch. Obviously, something will go wrong or some obstacle will need to be overcome before the requisite happy ending.

The first clue that Robin has something deeper in mind than some variation on the standard romantic comedy is when, at the conclusion of that scene, an anonymous woman comes out, sits on a chair, and begins to talk about her sex life. Her two-minute monologue proves to be the first of 10 such speeches in Anon, and we pretty quickly figure out that the speakers -- all women -- are members of a support group for women involved with sex addicts. And it's not long before Robin reveals the relevance of these interludes: Seemingly sweet Trip is a porn addict, which in turn causes him to be unable to perform sexually with Alison, whom he claims to love.

Robin deserves credit for tackling such an unusual topic, and one that some audiences will clearly relate to. Her speeches for the women, played by such dynamic New York actresses as Susan Blackwell, Shannon Burkett, Saidah Arrika Ekulonah, and Danielle Skraastad, are the best thing in the show. They each have the ring of truth, and each woman become a full-fledged character in just her brief stage time.

Unfortunately, she's far less successful in making her main stories as compelling: not just the stop-and-start Trip-Alison romance, but the parallel story of Trip's parents, Rachelle (Caroline Aaron) and Bert (Bill Buell), who are trapped in a dangerously unhealthy marriage. As it turns out, Trip has been doomed from the start, a victim of both nature and nurture. Daddy is also a long-time sex addict, and Mommy, a strict Catholic who doesn't believe in divorce, has turned all her affection towards Trip, whose other siblings have -- probably quite wisely -- opted out of this dysfunctional family.

As much as Robin has given Trip an explanation for his condition -- there's even an off-hand comment that his grandfather and Bert's father was "a monster" -- I think the playwright has underestimated how anti-male Anon ends up feeling. Yes, we're meant to understand that the men are victims of their disease, but why must Trip be so unpleasantly arrogant from the get-go. And Bert's horrendous treatment of Rachelle, addiction or not, is pretty close to unforgivable. Coupled with the confessions of the 10 women who expose the litany of the sins of the men in their lives (which include pedophilia, though not, it seems, homosexuality), the whole enterprise will seem to some as little more than the vengeful screed of a woman burned.

For the most part, director Melissa Kievman has guided the proceedings well, although the exits of the anonymous women are a bit too stagy, and she desperately needs to put a button on the last scene. Top acting honors belong to Aaron, who engenders enormous sympathy for Rachelle despite her maddening insistence on staying married, and Buell deserves a medal in bravery for his semi-nude scene.

Auberjonois, looking far sleeker than he did in the Atlantic's The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, does well enough by Trip, and Federer has some really affecting moments as Alison. But casting an actress as wispy as Federer only adds to the feeling that Robin sees Alison as a victim rather than an accomplice, her final mea culpa notwithstanding.

We are all judges -- of people's looks, book covers, and even playwright's possible motives. This is something Robin would be smart to keep in mind next time.