So, can a porn star go home again?
Well, I don't doubt that the adult entertainment industry contains sensitive souls, and some folks who hail from small towns — like Hesperia, Mich., the setting of the current play at Writers' Theatre — into whose fundamentalist bosoms they long to return, gain a measure of absolution and get a fresh start in love. But I'd venture this, albeit not from personal experience: Once one has made love for a living, in front of cameras, one would likely develop a certain cynicism about the act itself, which would take on a certain, well, quotidian quality. The bloom would permanently be off the rose.
That layer of irony is missing entirely from the character Ian (Nathan Hosner) in Stuart Carden's humorless, inorganic, underpaced, awkwardly staged and, at times, flat-out embarrassing production of Randall Colburn's newish play, "Hesperia." Granted, Colburn hedges his bets in that Ian and Claudia (Kelly O'Sullivan), the young woman whom he has come to Hesperia to chase, apparently had a sweet deal back out in the Valley, wherein they made love only with each other — and even said "I love you" at the end of each DVD. I guess that's possible, but the whole setup feels preposterous, nonetheless. On rare occasion, one encounters a show where you just can't buy into the world being laid out in front of you. On any level. So it went for me at "Hesperia," a rare total misfire at this distinguished Glencoe institution. Maybe you will get more out of it than me.
But the moment you meet characters who've been porn stars and have concealed their identities from those around them — Claudia, whose other name is Jessica, is about to get married to a youth group leader named, believe it or not, Trick (Erik Hellman) — you start waiting for the hard evidence to appear. And though it takes a while for that DVD to make its way to the stage, it surely does, as night follows day. But isn't most of this stuff straight-to-Internet now? In this town seemingly devoid of pop culture, you wouldn't know.
Aside from recounting the experience of these former film stars, Colburn also is interested in probing the repressed sexual desires of fundamentalist Christians, even treating us to a scene where Ian, having found out that the object of his odyssey has moved on, tries to make an approximation of love to a naive-but-curious virgin named Daisy (Rebecca Buller). I'm no prude, believe me, and the actors are surely sincere. But watching these two writhe away on the floor a few feet from one's seat was strangely undignified and uncomfortable to watch — mostly, I think, because the overall rhythms of the production are so forced and artificial and, even more significant, because the complex sexuality of people of religious faith is very difficult to explore in a meaningful way in 90 minutes, especially when Colburn has another main narrative on his plate at the same time. Such a topic needs sophisticated writing, very sensitive direction and characters in whom you can fully believe, none of which is present here.
There are, for sure, some capable actors in this cast. When obliged to get angry, O'Sullivan surely delivers. But it's a weirdly invulnerable performance from an actress I've seen do magnificent work elsewhere: Here, her emotions seem like histrionics that fly out of nowhere. The hugely capable Hellman, here playing a naive character whose idea of fun is taking the youth group out for ice cream, is similarly ill at ease, perhaps because he can't wrestle the persistently infantile aspect of the character to the ground. And Hosner, who is stiff and flailing throughout, doesn't seem to know where he should put himself, or what he should do with his body.
Colburn tells his story almost entirely with two-person scenes: There will be a confrontation, then one or both parties will exit, and then another pair will go at each other from a different angle. Very little happens in the present tense; characters are constantly recounting the past. And after a four of five of those conversations bereft of action, you've had more than enough. Carden makes all this much worse by letting the dial go back to zero between each scene and then trying to turn over the engine anew each and every time.
For the record, Tyler Ross plays Aaron, another naive Christian and the fifth of the five cast members. I felt nothing for any of them.
When: Through March 18
Where: Writers' Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $35-$70 at 847-242-6000 or writerstheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye