A bawdy comedy about sex might not be the place you would expect to find thoughts on communication, self-knowledge, and personal identity. Yet those themes are just what playwright Peter Ackerman explores in his nutty yet insightful bedroom farce at the Keegan Theatre, Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight.
The play begins at 3am with a couple having boisterous sex on the sofa bed in the New York living room of a young man named Ben (Michael Innocenti). His partner, Nancy (Caroline Wolfson), is having a fine, uninhibited time until she passionately lets fly with an insult that stops Ben cold. So ends the romantic evening, and an argument begins over Nancy's comment, which is a bizarre ethnic slur. Midway through the argument, Ben says something that wounds Nancy, which leads Nancy to leave Ben's apartment and seek refuge with her best friend, Grace (Allison Corke).
Meanwhile, Grace is trying to seduce her boyfriend of five days, Gene (Peter Finnegan), but Gene is having none of the romantic stuff. He's a rough-hewn hit man who wants to learn about art. In order to solve Nancy's dilemma, Grace decides to call Gene's therapist brother Mark (Kevin Hasser) to get his point of view on Ben. Mark happens to be in bed with an elderly man, Mr. Abramson (Timothy H. Lynch). The five newly acquainted friends discuss Ben and then call him to get his take about his relationship with Nancy.
The entire cast is superb. Innocenti is priceless as Ben, the long-suffering man who neglects to compliment his girlfriend because everyone else does. Wolfson simply lights up the difficult part of Nancy. She is at once outrageous and understandable as she strives to comprehend why saying forbidden things is so exciting to her.
Corke is appealing as Grace, a character who craves only sex, while Finnegan is delightful as the hit man who bakes bread and has aspirations to become refined. The virile young therapist Mark, who prefers old men to young, is portrayed excellently by Hasser. Lynch is very funny as the aging, quirky Mr. Abramson.
There's little plot in Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight — just an original idea that forces all the play's events to spin out of control. The story depends to a great degree on improbabilities and seeming impossibilities. It displays how we categorize, glorify, and misunderstand ourselves and the people we think we need and/or want. Ackerman shows us worshipping and demeaning those people. And he shows us how absolutely important language is, even when the body is engaged in carnal pursuits.
Ackerman's dialogue occasionally veers away from true wit and sinks to easy television-sitcom style, but the majority of his humor is clever. And the predicament he puts his characters in gives them plenty of time for hilarious debates about the merits of intellectual attraction versus physical attraction and deep emotional ties versus raw sex.
Director Colin Smith keeps the play moving at the dizzy pace required to make the constant barrage of jokes and comments fly together into a slurry of silliness.
The set, by Innocenti, creates a perfect home for a show focused on carnal desire. Ben's sofa bed is in the center of the stage. On two high platforms on either side of the stage are double beds, one for Grace's bedroom and one for Mark's.
The lighting design, by Allan Sean Weeks, effectively highlights those bedrooms one by one until the end, where all six characters are connected in the three-way phone call and the stage is bathed in light.
In the end, Ackerman's point of view is clear: Pure physical attraction is the glue that binds couples together, no matter what their background, sexual orientation, age, or education. But physical attraction isn't enough to keep couples together if certain taboo lines are crossed, even if those taboos are made up only of words.
Despite the fact that Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight is full of improbable people and events, there is a deeply satisfying core of truth running through Ackerman's writing, making this entertaining play far more than a superficial farce.