Why sex onstage rarely works

After I pointed out that the Goodman Theatre production of Christopher Shinn's "Teddy Ferrara" contains a goodly amount of onstage groping, poking and unbuttoning, a fevered member of the Twitterati made a rather stinging observation.

"Chris Jones," the knowing tweet declared, as if triumphantly outing a prude, "does not like plays with a lot of sex."

Now people ascribe inaccurate predispositions to critics all the time. Ignoring them is part of the job. But the tweet cited sufficient relatively recent evidence to give one pause. Alongside "Teddy Ferrara," there was "Dirty," an Andrew Hinderaker play at the Gift Theatre about the pornography industry, which required one of its actresses to make an erotic video, and there was "Hesperia," a Randall Colburn drama about a former porn star who becomes a Christian but retains certain interests of his former profession. That last show, which premiered at Writers' Theatre, required a couple of its stars, playing a former porn star and a verbose virgin, to make loud, frantic love, right there on the cold, hard floor in Glencoe.

I was no rabid fan of any of those three plays — mostly for reasons other than the sex, but it's true that I also thought that the sex did not work. Sex onstage rarely does.

Sex on screen is something else entirely. Consider "The Sessions," the remarkable Ben Lewin independent movie about the late Mark O'Brien, a severely disabled polio survivor who lived most of his life in an iron lung, but who decided, at 38, that he no longer wanted to be a virgin. This beautiful film, notable for its abundance of good-hearted, well-meaning characters, is greatly preoccupied with the mechanics of sex.

The O'Brien character, played by John Hawkes, hires a sex surrogate, played by Helen Hunt, whose extraordinary performance deserves an Academy Award next week. One finds oneself cheering on O'Brien as he navigates tricky angles, his need for oxygen and his struggles with premature excitement. I was only just removed from shouting something like "turn a bit to the right" at the screen. There are bodily parts, mostly owned by Hunt, swinging, squeezing and colliding in "The Sessions," but you're too engrossed in the main narrative action to really notice. These are near-perfect sex scenes.

Last week's episode of the fine HBO drama "Girls," intriguingly titled "One Man's Trash," also had a lot of sex. The apparent inability of the show's 26-year-old star and creator, Lena Dunham, to keep her clothes on for very long has attracted much notice among the Twitterati, of course, but Dunham and her curves have managed to upend so many conventional notions about cable TV sex that these scenes become both immersive and subversive.

No wonder Dunham is figuring out how to spend her reported multimillion-dollar advance from Random House for her debut collection of essays. She is a master of the sex scene used as a portal for mass-identification.

But her use of frequent sex in the show is not just realistic, it's also shrewdly aspirational: as when her character Hannah makes love to a much-older man, played by actor Patrick Wilson, inarguably one of the sexier men alive. One could only imagine what was going on at that moment in the heads of Dunham's audience. As sex scenes go, here was another corker of complexity.

So why can't the stage do this?

Part of the problem, of course, is that one views "Girls" or "The Sessions" in the dark — or, at least, in the kind of isolation that the theater does not easily afford. On film, your eye sees the action only from angles carefully selected. The sex in "Girls" has the laudable aura of frank spontaneity, but it's an illusion. One sees not the strings. Onstage, especially in the small venues common in Chicago, your inevitably broader view of the action is frequently framed by other audience members. At "Teddy Ferrara" last week, I watched the sex scenes with a squirming high-school-age girl in one part of my field of vision, and a tough-to-read senior gentleman in another. One cannot help but watch them watch what you're watching. "What are they thinking?" you think, which pulls you out of the scene.

Then there's the matter of the actors. Back in 2003, John Istel wrote a savvy article in American Theatre magazine calling for an end to onstage nudity, not on moralistic grounds but because, he argued, "not only is it distracting, it's anti-theatrical. It's the death of artifice."

"Most often," Istel went on to say, "it's just plain embarrassing, both for audience and performers."

Well, not always. And sometimes, embarrassment is a legitimate artistic goal. But regardless of the nudity question, it sure is exceedingly difficult to watch a sex scene without thinking such questions as "Are they really doing that?" or, yet more distractingly, "Are they really going to do that?" Then there's "How does that actor feel about doing that?" or, yet more distractingly, "Were they somehow talked into doing that against their better judgment?" Only rarely does the truth of a scene survive.

Any kind of absolutism does not serve the arts. There can be good sex in theater, just as there can be good sex everywhere else. But it helps when there is some visual distance to frame the experience; when you don't have other audience members as a backdrop; and when the sex session really, truly has something radically distinctive to say.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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