John O'Callaghan and John Keating
in Ladies & Gents
(© Aaron Epstein )
John O'Callaghan and John Keating
in Ladies & Gents
(© Aaron Epstein )
There was a time when hanging out by the stalls in a public restroom only netted a "no loitering" rap from the cop on the beat. Right now, however, theatergoers can benignly indulge the activity at the toilets adjacent to Central Park's Bethesda Fountain by way of writer-director Paul Walker's Ladies & Gents, an appealingly nasty and nicely compact cautionary tale, being presented by Dublin's Semper Fi company in association with The Irish Arts Center.

While this extremely well-acted, literally in-your-face work would be timely no matter when it were presented, there's no denying it has astonishing resonance at a time when one New York governor has resigned after being exposed as a hypocrite and his successor has admitted to extramarital affairs in order to avoid being blackmailed.

The audience is divided in two (after receiving either a black or white card), with one half guided by we'll-brook-no-nonsense staff members into the gents' facility and the other half shown to the ladies room -- with all spectators then lined up along the closed stalls. A 20-minute scene unfolds in each space, at the end of which there's a short intermission before the groups change places to watch the scene they hadn't previously witnessed.

Initially, it appears that it's Dublin, 1957, and the characters are engaged in an illicit undertaking. A slick bloke called Watson (John O'Callaghan) is pimping his wife Emily (Laoisa Sexton) to a politician identified as Mr. X (David McDonald), who for reasons of titillation has requested that the assignation be carried out in these questionable -- not to say pungent -- surroundings. Within minutes, the plan begins to fall apart, only to be superceded by an even more diabolical plot involving Mr. X. Also connected to what's going down is a Stranger (John Keating), who arrives to menace the caught-off-guard Watson, and Billy (Paul Nugent), a younger fellow with a camera whom the Watsons have seemingly recruited as part of a potential blackmailing scheme.

The creators clearly intend part of the dark fun to be in patrons figuring out what evil is transpiring in the dim, dank surroundings. Nevertheless, it's fair enough to note that the various failed and executed transactions have more to do than might at first be guessed from an announcement made to those gathered in the Gents. There, a disembodied voice mentions that a Dublin man was imprisoned in 1957 for producing Tennessee Williams' Rose Tattoo because a condom appears on stage. The announcement then notes that later in the same year, "Mr. Peter Evans, prominent politician, hangs himself after compromising pictures are published in a daily newspaper."

Semper Fi surely intends the Grand Guignolish piece to register as criticizing and satirizing societal double standards. As Emily explains to Billy, while she's preparing herself to meet Mr. X, she and hubby turned to their larcenous endeavors only after his wealthy family turned on him for marrying her. Accordingly, the snubbed Watsons rightly reckoned that the hypocrisy of such people could be exploited. What they didn't count on was minds more distorted than theirs coming into play.