Sarah Jones examines sex work, what it is and where it is going, in her enthralling new solo show.
In the future, the commercial sex industry will overtake arms manufacturing as the most powerful lobby in Washington. This is just one of the many prescient predictions in writer-performer Sarah Jones' new solo play at Manhattan Theatre Club, Sell/Buy/Date, which takes on the next 100 years of the world's oldest profession. Jones (who won a special Tony Award for her fleshy portrayals of metro-area New Yorkers in her 2006 solo show, Bridge & Tunnel) proves to be the perfect microscope for examining this still-taboo topic from multiple angles. Through a series of monologues, we get to know this world not just through the perspective of sex workers, but casual consumers and smut tycoons alike. Her performances go beyond convincing mimicry to get at something every genuine theater artist strives to achieve: profound empathy.
In fact, the technology Jones dreams up as a pretense for her monologues, BERT (bio-empathetic resonant technology) allegedly allows a classroom full of students in the next century to feel the emotions coursing through various interview subjects as they discuss their relationship with commercial sex (this encompasses both pornography and prostitution). We play the role of the students as Jones takes on a professor character name Dr. Serene Campbell, a British academic who has her own mini-drama playing out between BERT monologues that introduce us to a sex-trafficking activist, a professional dominatrix, and a vice cop who doubles as a John on the weekends.
Serene gives us context for each of these monologues as we travel forward in history: "By 2025, prostitution has been legalized in California, Florida, and New Jersey," she tells us before introducing a BERT module from Sergei, a sex start-up entrepreneur. "Almost overnight, commercial sex-based businesses begin to reshape the economies of those states, with Florida in particular leading the charge." It all seems eerily plausible.
Like a very patient swim instructor, Jones gently pulls her audience into the deep end until we are fully immersed in a way we might not be if she had just tossed us in to sink or swim from the get-go. The first BERT character we meet may feel very familiar to off-Broadway audiences: Lorraine is an 88-year-old Jewish grandmother who shares a story about the time she went online to find a pornographic movie for her husband. "Just for inspiration, you understand," she hastens to add. We go on to meet Bella, a sex-work studies major at an unnamed Bay Area university, and Jamaican No Fakin', a West Indian escort marching for sex workers' rights.
Add to this the fact that Jones is an extraordinarily gifted actress and you get a winning combination for unforgettable theater. Her dialect work is flawless, while her physicality helps you to envision each of her subjects, even while she wears the same simple black costume throughout. She plays men and women, teens and senior citizens, and a broad range of ethnicities, all with unwavering commitment so that we never question any of it.
Director Carolyn Cantor has smartly opted for simplicity, allowing the production to speed along at a breezy 85 minutes while Jones does what she does best. Designer Dane Laffrey (who did the costumes and set) has crafted a mostly empty space that suggests the future (with its projected background and rings of light on the floor), leaving plenty of room for Jones and her compelling imagination.
Jones envisages a future in which the full force of American marketing gets behind an industry that now exists mostly in the shadows: Scary pimps are replaced by chirpy brand ambassadors as services are customized for every conceivable taste, whim, and budget. If the rapidly evolving Colorado and Washington State marijuana businesses serve as a template, none of her predictions are particularly far-fetched. One begins to wonder if the decriminalization of prostitution is preferable to legalization, despite all its promises of stringent safety regulations and fat tax receipts.
Beyond policy considerations, Sarah Jones is making a special kind of theatrical magic in Sell/Buy/Date by taking a difficult issue and putting multiple human faces on it. These people are intelligent, funny, and deeply relatable, helping us to understand that the world of sex work exists a lot closer to home than most people would care to admit.