Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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The Good Doctor

April 07, 2011

Maggie Siff and Polly Draper Photo: Lisa Petereson

Jane Anderson has developed a reputation for writing smart and funny plays that skewer the presumptions that hold together our pleasant everyday lives. Thus, it is no surprise that her latest collaboration with the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, The Escort, which opened on Wednesday night, delivers significant laughs amidst a text that presses some buttons both for the characters on stage and the audience. As the name promises, The Escort concerns a woman who trades sex for money. Whether or not you want to call Charlotte a prostitute or a sex worker is one of the many contentious issues Anderson is taking on in her new play. But to be fair, the escort of the play’s title, marvelously played by Maggie Siff, is less the protagonist of the play than the catalyst for change in others, particularly a gynecologist who’s treating Charlotte, Dr. Rhona Bloom. Dr. Bloom, played here by the wonderful Polly Draper, treats Charlotte with a professional and respectful if somewhat curious manner, when she first enters her office. It's not unlike what most of us would expect and hope to emulate in a similar situation.

But what start's out as a light-heated consideration of Charlotte's professional career, soon gets more complicated. The doctor-patient boundaries are gradually dropped over Charlotte's subsequent visits with Dr. Bloom and a friendship forms. Eventually, Dr. Bloom is cajoled into meeting with a male prostitute in light of her own ongoing worries about her desirability and her frustrations with both her ex-husband, a urologist, and their 13 year-old son. It's really the gynecologist, and not the escort, that the play turns around. Dr. Bloom's own misgivings about the social and sexual development of her son, her unresolved emotional conflicts with her ex, and her own sense of self-worth are brought into new relief by this patient, who has a very different, though initially not objectionable, view of the world. The rub of the play, though, is that Dr. Bloom soon finds herself at odds between an arguably more fulfilling vision of herself à la Charlotte, or the more morally determined self she has always known. On the one hand she's concerned about her son looking at pornography on line. On the other she's rethinking her own attitude toward sexual promiscuity. And while this is not entirely new ground, Anderson sharply questions the stories and falsehoods we tell ourselves in order to create our own moral subjectivity. This works both ways for both women in The Escort who initially fantasize that they have far more in common than what they come to discover. Anderson is taking on liberal notions about pornography, sex, and women's work here under one big umbrella and leaving very big questions open for the audience to consider in a group of characters with a high level of complexity.

This makes the play sound much more serious than it is, however. There are great one-liners throughout. Anderson also expertly crafts an introductory monologue for Charlotte who speaks directly to the audience about the body suits she and a male prostitute character wear in the play, given the large amount of nudity and sexually explicit activity portrayed or implied on stage. Charlotte explains that onstage nudity can be distracting in and of itself, and Anderson wants the audience, whom Charlotte addresses several times directly, to concentrate on the events at hand. There are also several wonderful comic moments from the men in the cast. Dr. Bloom's ex, the other Dr. Bloom, is played by James Eckhouse and their 13 year old son is played by an adult, Gabriel Sunday. Mr. Sunday also doubles as the male prostitute in the play in a bit of deliberate overlapping casting that fleshes out some of the parent's issues in the script.

If there is anything disappointing in The Escort, it's Anderson's haphazard, poorly realized ending. I don't want to say too much and spoil the show, but the final scenes have the feel of a show that isn't sure where it wants to go. It knows where it doesn't want to go, but isn't exactly sure how to prevent that from happening entirely. On balance, though, The Escort is a strong show, and good ideas are often much more than one gets from any play, well scripted or not. The Escort runs through May 8.


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