Lisa Emery and Elias Koteas in Hot 'N' Throbbing
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Lisa Emery and Elias Koteas in Hot 'N' Throbbing
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
A flood of red light washes over the stage as a young woman gyrates on a coffee table. "She was hot," says a male voice amplified by a microphone. "She was throbbing. But she was in control." Thus begins the Signature Theatre's New York premiere production of Paula Vogel's Hot 'N' Throbbing. Originally produced at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge in 1994, the play is a provocative exploration of the complexities of domestic abuse, sexual desire, and the long-term affects of trauma.

Charlene (Lisa Emery) is a single mother who makes her living writing erotic screenplays for a women's film production company. Her two children, Leslie Ann (Suli Holum) and Calvin (Matthew Stadelmann), are fairly average teenagers coming into their own sexuality. Leslie Ann has a penchant for wearing tight fitting pants and going to sleepovers at her best friend's house -- although there is some question in the play as to whether or not that's what she and her friend actually do. Calvin, on the other hand, is a bookish nerd who doesn't really have anywhere to go on Friday nights. His idea of a good time is hiding in the bushes and peeping at his sister while she's undressing.

Vogel raises some thorny ethical issues in relation to the way Charlene's career impacts on the raising of her children. When Charlene chastises her daughter for the way she dresses, Leslie Ann remarks that her mother's film company routinely objectifies girls her age as sex objects. We also see how Charlene picks up threads of conversation between her two children and begins transforming details from them into erotic fiction. Still, there is no indication that Charlene is trying to be anything but a good mother; her job, while not one that's typically associated with motherhood, allows her to take control of her life and provide for her family.

It's also clear that Charlene is a much better influence on her children than their father, Clyde (Elias Koteas). Charlene has taken out a restraining order against her abusive ex-husband, who nevertheless shows up at her home while the kids are out. The erstwhile couple's love/hate relationship is at the core of the play, and it's handled in a manner that is both farcical and deadly serious.

As Charlene writes her stories, they are narrated by Rebecca Wisocky and Tom Nelis. These two actors are listed as "Voice-over" and "Voice" in the program but are tangible onstage presences representing Charlene's thoughts and desires. Even when Charlene is not writing, they hover about, commenting on the action and even sending her warnings about the dangerous situation in which she's putting herself by continuing to talk to her ex-husband.

Mark Wendland's set design nicely depicts a comfy, middle-class suburban household. As the action progresses, the home is literally torn apart; walls and stairways are pushed back. Robert Wierzel's lighting design alternates between an appropriately flat look during the more realistic scenes and a saturated red wash during the "fantasy" sequences, presided over by the voices in Charlene's head. Ilona Somogyi's costumes are well-suited to the characters, and the outfits she has given Wisocky to wear are particularly eye-popping. The most important design element, however, is Darron L. West's sound. It sets the mood of each scene even more than the abrupt lighting changes, incorporating everything from jazzy undertones when Nelis speaks as a detective in one of Charlene's stories to cinematic horror sound effects when Wisocky's Voice-over tries to warn Charlene to get out of the house.

The majority of the cast is absolutely terrific. Emery grounds the play with her portrayal of a capable woman who has occasional lapses in judgment. Koteas does well with a part that's difficult not to make into a caricature; his Clyde is both nasty and pathetic, yet still believable in the extremes of his human failure. Both Wisocky and Nelis are pitch-perfect as the dual voices. Holum, while not as captivating a presence as the other actors, still manages to hit all of her marks, and she performs David Neumann's choreography with aplomb. The only major disappointment is Matthew Stadelmann, who is never believable as Calvin; he indicates every emotion and intention, and his awkward mannerisms take the viewer out of the production.

Stadelmann's casting is not the show's only flaw; the script itself has a few plot points that are hard to swallow. For example, after Clyde breaks into the house, Charlene shoots him in the butt and he proceeds to bleed all over the sofa, yet he is never brought to the hospital and he doesn't seem to be in a great deal of pain. But such lapses in believability are not enough to significantly dull the impact of Hot 'N' Throbbing, which remains a vibrant and compelling theatrical work. Though not perfect, this stylish production -- directed by Les Waters -- is a nice way to wrap up the Signature Theatre season devoted to Vogel's work.