The Joys of Sex puts the whole thing on ice, notwithstanding the fact that the lobby area is given over to sex toys and candy. While hoping that patrons will think they're attending something racy and sophisticated, the creators have crafted a middle-brow entertainment for what seems a rather narrow demographic: Upper West Side neo-yuppies from secular Jewish backgrounds who are either having trouble pairing off or whose young marriage is experiencing some kinks. (No, not that kind of kinks. The joys of sex? This endeavor doesn't begin to understand them.)
This revue with plot that lyricist/co-librettist Melissa Levis and composer/co-librettist David Weinstein have thunk up concerns marrieds Howard Nolton (Ron Bohmer) and Stephs Nolton (Stephanie Kurtzuba), who are having trouble conceiving; Brian Shapiro (David Josefsberg), who's doesn't see himself as dateable; and April Jones (Jenelle Lynn Randall), another Manhattan type who fears a committed relationship. April gets involved with the Noltons when, as an old school chum of Howard's, she moves into his building and is fixed up with Howard's best buddy, Brian.
Over a period of a few months, the Noltons do what they can to make their baby and Brian does what he can to convince April that they should be together. In pursuing these goals, they continuously break into not-very-infectious songs that pretty much cover the topics you'd expect to be covered: there are songs about marital aids, Internet cruising and its potential for being lied to, threesomes, fantasies, etc. Stephs sings about having faked orgasms throughout her marriage, which causes fewer problems with Howard than might be imagined. Brian sings about his particular kink, which he never specifies -- probably because the authors couldn't think of anything that would either be genuinely shocking or would serve as a solid punch line. Howard sings about a fling with twins but the story turns out to be total fabrication. April has the show's one potentially strong song, about regretting one-night stands, but songwriters Levis and Weinstein don't know how to develop it into something with a real pay-off.
Every once in while, the actors play different characters. Bohmer and Kurtzuba are Brian's parents, Gladys and Irving, who like to vary their days by visiting that S&M palace in the meatpacking district called the Vault. There, Randall is a dominatrix unamusingly dubbed Mistress Pain and Josefsberg is an eager dominatee. Josefsberg also plays Stephs's wheelchair-ridden grandma, who dispenses practical advice about spicing up bedroom shenanigans. But none of this registers as anything new on the sex-and-games horizon. Indeed, Levis and Weinstein don't seem to be aware of more recent developments. They know about Ruth Westheimer, for example, but they don't think to mention Sue Johanson, the Canadian sex therapist who's replaced Dr. Ruth on the frank-talk circuit. Stephs, for her part, professes a passion for Shaun Cassidy. (Shaun Cassidy?!) Levis and Weinstein refer to the Penthouse forum but show no signs of knowing about Maxim and FHM. (Maybe their parents have declared those randy 'zines forbidden reading.) The songwriting team don't even seem to have any awareness of Sex and the City, which dealt much more salaciously and deliciously with the topics they raise so gingerly.
The Joys of Sex is middle-of-the-road all the way; everything in it is either blunted or taken back. Howard does succeed in having a three-way with the women, which takes a predictable turn and then results in their regretting the act. Do Howard and Stephs eventually get pregnant? Do Brian and April try dating only each other? You can probably guess the answers to all of these questions since the point has been made here that, from start to finish, The Joys of Sex plays it safe: It invites an audience to be naughty and then pats it on the back for being conventional.
In full disclosure, I have to report I left The Joys of Sex before it was over, just after the Howard-Stephs-April ménage-à-trois. I didn't depart because I was offended by the show's content; anything but. It was because I didn't see anything in the revue that would be offensive to anyone, which is practically a repudiation of what good satire is. By the time I took off, I could see what was coming -- the complacent suburban lifestyle being plugged. And I'd had my fill of knowing beforehand what lyricist Levis was going to rhyme with what; if I heard "fiber" in a song about computers, I knew that "cyber" was on the way. (I didn't know what Levis meant, though, when one song mentioned "geishas in Singapore." Are there geishas in Singapore? I wouldn't have thought so!)
Though I left before the final cop-out, I saw more than enough of the show to tell you that Neil Patel's set is a beneficial confection; David C. Woolard keeps the colorful costumes coming and appears to have an eye for leather; David H. Lawrence's wigs are witty; Donald Holder's lighting brightens the operation and choreographer Lisa Shriver adds flair to the proceedings. By the way, though the use of a Sinfonia in this show caused a to-do with the musicians' union, musical director Steven Ray Watkins does play the piano live with bassist Stefan Held and drummer-percussionist Roger Cohen at his side.
Director Jeremy Dobrish, whose Superpowers at the Ohio Theatre is imaginative in ways The Joys of Sex isn't, cranks the actors up to speed -- not that they or anyone else could ever move fast enough to obscure the dearth of imagination at the musical's core. The strapping Ron Bohmer, the nubile Stephanie Kurtzuba, the goofy David Josefsberg, and the stylish Jenelle Lynn Randall are deft sketch comics and each of them can belt a number when required. Changing clothes more often than supermodels during Fashion Week, they effortlessly execute the bits of business that Dobrish dreamed up to keep things flowing.
For about 30 years in the middle of the 20th century, an entertainer named Charlie Drew sang naughty ditties in the Tap Room of the Hotel Taft. Week in and week out during his run, the New Yorker ad for the gig featured a drawing of a woman with her hand before her mouth under the line, "Oh, that Charlie Drew!" The Joys of Sex, which has been plucked from last year's New York International Fringe Festival, is Charlie Drew for 2004.
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