Thank God I'm not watching 'Book of Mormon' with Mom

"Slightly," said Rob Porter, the dad, with a quiver of discomfort that could be measured on a Richter scale.

I spotted Serena Himmelfarb, 25, and Holly Day, her mother. Day, who didn't want to give her age, said her daughter called ahead and warned her: Just FYI, there is full-frontal male nudity in this thing.

"I think the uneasiness in these situations," Himmelfarb said shyly, "comes from assuming that the other person is uneasy."

For me, definitely.

In fact, as someone who has found himself in this uncomfortable position remarkably often, I feel overqualified to talk about the squirmy embarrassment of seeing raunchy material with parents. Either that or I'm just a repressed Catholic prude. I saw "The Crying Game" with my mother on Christmas night. I saw Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves," in which Emily Watson is encouraged by her disabled husband to set out on a sexual walkabout with strangers and report back with details, on Thanksgiving night. When I was a teenager, my mother and I wandered from a Roy Lichtenstein exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in New York into a nearby Robert Mapplethorpe show. (You know, complete with the bullwhips and everything.)

I have developed such a low threshold for seeing uncomfortable material in the presence of my family that if they are watching a movie and I know there's a scene with nudity coming up, I will unsubtly excuse myself.

Linda Rubinowitz, a clinical psychologist at Northwestern University's Family Institute, explained this: She hears from patients about such discomfort fairly often, but more from teenagers and adult children than parents. She said the feeling is especially acute among "young adults who are growing into genuine adulthood. As they get older, things equal out and the tension becomes reduced, but the truth is that I'm not sure this ever entirely goes away. It's just hard to enjoy theater, film, TV, whatever, when you can't help being reminded your parents are still your parents and you are still their child. But that also has a lot to do with the cultural norms in this country. It's like, American parents never have sex, right? Just that one time."

Of course, it should be noted that, regardless of how uncomfortable you may be watching raunchy material, performers themselves, when they know their parents are in their audience, get doubly embarrassed. Chris Witaske, 29, has been in the Second City e.t.c. cast for six months. He recalled performing in his first play as a student at the University of Iowa, and how the role required miming a certain sex act and how his parents drove in from St. Charles for the show and, oh, well: "They are unconditionally supportive, but there are those latent Catholic values and afterward they said they just kind of skipped past the other stuff and said they were so sad my grandparents couldn't have been there to see it."

Somehow, knowing it could be worse is comforting. Joe Jahraus, founder of Profiles Theatre, a frequent home for difficult onstage situations unfolding inches from your face, told me he simply doesn't invite his mother to some of the theater's productions. As a teenager he took her to see "Taxi Driver," then spent "the entire movie regretting it." He learned his lesson.

He went to a dress rehearsal for "Book of Mormon" last week. "I've seen a lot but when they got to the '(expletive) God' part, my girlfriend and I were like, oh, ouch. I mean, I wasn't offended by it, of course, and I doubt many people are, but I still wouldn't take my mother."

Neither would I. Besides, theater's expensive. This Christmas, I'm thinking "Django Unchained."

cborrelli@tribune.com
Twitter @borrelli

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