Los Angeles Theater Review: SELL/BUY/DATE (Geffen Playhouse in Westwood)

by Samuel Garza Bernstein on March 10, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles

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Sarah Jones is a prescient writer and an actor of rare gifts and remarkable range. It’s no wonder that an early patron and supporter was Meryl Streep, for like Streep, Jones goes in and out of accents and physical characterizations with precision in a way that appears effortless.

In her engrossing new solo work, Sell/Buy/Date, she takes us back from an unspecified future. She is Dr. Serene Campbell, a British sociology professor teaching a course that connects her students electronically with the lives and feelings of sex workers and people responding to sex workers, beginning in the early decades of the 21st century. The show is nothing if not timely, given the power of the insurgent #MeToo movement and the scandal du jour of the President and the Porn Star.

Throughout the “class” Dr. Campbell occasionally asks her V.A. (virtual assistant) to take her into “private” to discuss her pending promotion with her dean as well as her mother. Phones are no longer external — we are all linked by implanted technology. Dr. Campbell grows increasingly concerned that a secret she has used to propel her career may destroy her advancement.

For the lecture, Campbell uses B.E.R.T. (Bio-Empathetic Resonant Technology) to plug her students directly into the emotions and memories of the many characters Jones creates. And it’s quite a gallery.

First up is a Jewish grandmother recounting her brief experience with internet porn “just for inspiration” when her husband’s sex drive has diminished. She is mildly horrified at how it’s all “so extreme, like the extreme sports.” One imagines her as a somewhat tame beginning for the raunchier stuff to come — but that is not the case.

Sell/Buy/Date is never prurient. It takes an approach to sex that is appropriately academic for the narrative, though also somewhat homogenized. We get a lot of talk about intersectionality, agency, and feminism, without a lot of emotional resonance. A dazzling exception is Jones’s portrayal of an Irish woman who ended up in sex work after becoming pregnant as a teenager and giving up her baby: “It wasn’t that Pretty Woman film, I can tell you that,” she says, while observing with a barely restrained sense of loss that the girls going on the game are swallowed up by a business that promises freedom but takes their souls.

A Jamaican woman moves to sex work from caregiving because if she is going to touch old white men, she might as well touch the body parts that yield the biggest payout. She is brought to America under the false promise of hotel work but ends up a victim of sex trafficking. Dr. Campbell notes that this was a time when people were not free to travel between borders, and trafficking was a nefarious way of moving from a poor economy to a richer one.

Perhaps the funniest character is Bella, named for Bella Abzug, “a famous feminist from, like, history?” Admittedly, a first-year college student is low hanging fruit, but her scene lands. She majors in Sex Work Studies, and describes her biweekly feminist pole-dancing class as a way of getting in touch with “your, like, feminine power? Without essentializing what constitutes ‘the feminine?’ And while increasing upper-body strength and stamina.”

There are a lot of laughs throughout, often when Dr. Campell recalls the bad old days (now). She holds up a Barbie doll and says she first thought it must be an educational tool to teach young girls about the perils of anorexia. In discussing men of the early 21st century she notes that male ‘sluts’ of the period were referred to as… Men.

Jones also gives us several male characters. (Though in Dr. Campell’s time, the binary idea of men and women is no longer a thing.) There’s a dude at his bachelor party falling all over himself to be politically correct about women, while outlining in roundabout terms his embrace of the ages-old conception of woman as Madonna or whore. There’s also a pimp-turned-life coach and therapist who had a revelation while simultaneously watching Oprah and beating up one of his girls.

The most frightening material involves the female rout of male congressional candidates in 2018 that is followed by a 2020 male backlash that sparks a hideous period of corporate takeover of the world. Sex becomes the most lucrative product of all, with male objectification of women reaching epidemic proportions. Literally. Millions of men start dying young, and medical researchers learn that objectifying women with the help of various technologies is dangerous to your health. A Post Progressive Era is ushered in by the astounding specter of straight men being forced to become sexually woke.

Expertly directed by Carolyn Cantor, the evening breezes by. Jones’s dialogue is always persuasive, her impressions about life well-observed, and her research for the piece was apparently exhaustive. All the facts feel right. But in a show where the students are asked to turn off their implanted “emotion dampers” to fully experience what the B.E.R.T. subjects are feeling, it’s disappointing that whimsy and wit rule the day. I wanted to feel more, and the very device that glues the narrative together seemed to promise me I would.

photos by Chris Whitaker

Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse
10866 Le Conte Avenue in Westwood
Tues-Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on April 8, 2018 EXTENDED to April 15, 2018
for tickets, call 310.208.5454 or visit Geffen Playhouse

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