nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 13, 2010
In Sexual Healing, playwright/director Jonathan Leaf asks what it would be like to be a woman like Virginia Johnson—"like" being the operative word, for this is a work of fiction—someone who became involved professionally and then personally with a visionary doctor who wanted to understand and improve human sexual function. It's a fascinating play because it explores this topic with intelligence and balance. How do you separate the physical aspects of what we call love-making from the emotional aspects that seem so important to most of us? (Can you separate them at all?) And do the ends justify the means, especially when the latter—in this case, using women as "sexual surrogates" who are, on some level, working as prostitutes—exploits the very group who will benefit from the former—in this case, the development of a clearer understanding of the female genitalia and how women can achieve sexual satisfaction?
These are just some of the places Leaf takes us in this consistently involving work. Sexual Healing is narrated by Desiree Novak, who, when we first meet her in 1959, is a 30-something single mother of a retarded daughter looking for a job. She applies for one as assistant to Dr. William Munson, an obstetrician at an Ohio university who has recently begun a post-Kinsey project to study human sexuality as a tool for improving marriages and families—his vision is that if he can help men and women toward more satisfying sex lives, he can reduce the number of divorces and extramarital affairs. Munson also is a vigorous believer in therapies to "cure" homosexuals (it's worth remembering that it was not until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a disease).
Desiree is titillated by the kind of work she'll be required to do if she takes the job with Munson; it's clear from the beginning that she is genuinely interested in and excited by sex, intellectually and pruriently. (Is this something she shares with Munson? I leave that to you to decide.) They prove to be simpatico, and within a few years she has become his chief assistant and collaborator, despite her lack of formal training; and soon after she also becomes his lover, despite his being married with several children. The irony of a sex researcher who claims he does his work to prevent divorce cheating on his wife and eventually divorcing her is never overstated in Sexual Healing, but is always hovering over the proceedings.
Munson employs a fleet of women, including at least one convicted former prostitute, as surrogates to work with patients—we see them variously test out male subjects to determine if they are actually impotent, demonstrate specific sexual techniques for husbands and wives, and "coach" gay men to have "normal" sex with a woman. This highly questionable aspect of Munson's practice eventually gets him and Desiree in a good deal of hot water. The ethical questions are surfaced but never answered here, which is wise: the significance of this play, as of the work of real-life researchers in Munson's field, is to raise awareness of the fundamental issues surrounding sexuality. Knowledge really is power.
The play follows Desiree into her 60s, at a time when much of the work she and Munson did has been discredited or, as she notes, replaced by a "little pill." Again, it is the many moral quandaries that characterize any life that are always Leaf's focus. Though ultimately some scenes in Sexual Healing are less convincing than others (notably a trial scene in Act II that doesn't ring as true as it could), the subtextual themes always resonate.
The play benefits enormously from the presence of Judith Hawking in its leading role. Hawking, a superb actress whom I have long admired, gives a smart, textured performance as Desiree, showing us her growth and progression from a young woman who is unsure of her place in the world to a mature, self-confident person who becomes her husband's equal partner in every sense. Aided by Sarah Shears's costumes, which follow fashion from the '60s to the '90s, she convincingly ages as well.
Chuck Montgomery does a fine job as Munson, and like Hawking he very effectively convinces us that his character is 30 years older at the end of the play than at the beginning. Is Munson a genius wearing blinders, or a spoiled manipulator? Montgomery helps us see it both ways, which feels much truer than an either/or approach to the role.
The ensemble is filled out by Sarah Nina Hayon, Ren Matthewson, Peter O'Connor, Sayra Player, and Hugh Sinclair, who play more than a dozen roles among them and all do fine work.
Leaf's direction is tight and focused and serves his script well. A simple unit set by Craig M. Napoliello and lighting by Maria Cristina Fuste provide a believable world for the play.
Sexual Healing—whose title, for better or worse, never fails to put me in mind of a Marvin Gaye record—deals with potentially titillating topics in a grown-up manner; it reminded me of the film Kinsey in that regard. (There is one scene of female nudity, almost in passing, possibly not even necessary.) Sexual repression and confusion are still a huge part of American popular culture despite the groundbreaking work of people like the characters depicted in this play; witness our current national hysteria over gay marriage and the endless cycles of objectification of women everywhere in the media. So a play like Sexual Healing, that helps provide some perspective on these very universal, very personal matters, is valuable...and surprisingly rare.