nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 9, 2005
Think about a high-profile sex scandal, like the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair. There's a political component, right?; though it didn't finally bring down the administration or anything. There's definitely a prurient aspect: he did WHAT with the cigar? she did WHAT under his desk? There's a celebrity/star thing: Bill, now perhaps untouchable; Monica, forever a Scarlet Woman or a zaftig joke, or perhaps both.
The power of Rob Handel's intriguing, inquisitive new play Aphrodisiac is that it offers a perspective on matters such as these that we just don't ordinarily encounter. Monica's a human being, after all; maybe she really was in love with the President (Handel speculates as much in the excellent penultimate scene of this piece). Maybe Monica has a family who, no matter how they feel about her or Mr. Clinton, are genuinely touched by all the negative attention that's been showered on their daughter/sister/whatever. Maybe all the stuff that we're sure doesn't matter—such as, a person's feelings—is in fact the only stuff that does matter.
Handel manages to turn everything we think we know about this corner of political/social discourse inside out in this provoking and provocative little play of his. Aphrodisiac is only peripherally about Monica and Bill, though they get a fair amount of stage time; the main plot concerns a California congressman named Dan Ferris whose apparently clandestine relationship with a Washington, D.C. intern has come to light now that the intern has disappeared. Ferris has two children, a 33-year-old son named Avery who works for the Mayor's Office in D.C. and consequently believes, rightly or wrongly, that he's a political insider; and a 24-year-old daughter, Alma, who has escaped the family for a life of her own in New York. Alma and Avery, if not exactly estranged from their parents, are at least out of touch with them—and out of the loop as the publicity about their father and the intern, Ilona Waxman, escalates. They want answers, support, and comfort. Avery says:
Do you find that you hate to give your name? When I check in at a hotel or whatever the girl sees the name Ferris and there's this tiny reaction. Then I have to wonder if she's going to ask me "Any relation?" and I'm going to have to decide whether to lie. Or be, what, sort of defiant. "He's my father."
In the play, we never see Alma and Avery get information about what happened from any source besides the radio. Solace and understanding they find in each other, in a drawn-out "game" in which they take turns role-playing themselves asking their parents questions or re-enacting made-up "scenes" between their father and Ilona. They're after, and perhaps find, emotional rather than factual truth; Handel's great gift to his audience is providing this singular point of view as a way in to considering the private meaning and consequences of public events.
I love, for example, the way that Alma bristles when a newscaster refers to their father as an "undistinguished" congressman. It's so easy to forget that everybody we write or speak publicly about has a reality we don't know anything about: Handel himself does—how does what I'm writing right now feel to him and those close to him? That, at least in part, is what Aphrodisiac is about.
It trades, too, in more particular political issues. What did Clinton's easy way with vows and language and women do to his office and to our country? There's a terrific scene in the play's second act in which Avery imagines a late-night bull session involving his father, the President, Willie Nelson, and Keith Richard, all considering the question of whether Clinton should make some kind of public acknowledgement about the death of Kurt Cobain. It feels eerily more real than reporting that must, conceptually, be more factual and accurate; it also feels like it matters more.
The play reaches a kind of resolution with the arrival of Monica Lewinsky. The press release (quoted in the material above this review) suggests that Monica's appearance is part of the kids' game, but it felt real to me; in any event, what she tells the younger Ferrises is riveting and important. Handel, playing fast and loose with journalistic truth in ways that would normally scare me, manages to stay honest and on point throughout Aphrodisiac. I will be watching for whatever he comes up with next.
The production, the third from 13P, solidifies their reputation for fine work. It's directed tautly and compellingly by Ken Rus Schmoll and features a simple, spare, and very appropriate design (sets, Sue Rees; lighting, Garin Marschall; costumes, Michelle R. Phillips; sound, Bray Poor). Jennifer Dundas (Alma), Thomas Jay Ryan (Avery), and Alison Weller (Monica) turn in superb performances.