Detached characters undo this production

The U.S. premiere of ‘Sex Diary of an Infidel’ should have drawn in its audience with isolation

Tatum Fjerstad

Sex is a powerful and versatile thing. It is physical passion. It hurts. It sells. And at its best, sex connects people, whether figuratively or literally.

The Penumbra Theatre’s national premiere of “Sex Diary of an Infidel” represents sex in the darkest of forms ‘ when it is void of any connection.

In the play written by Michael Gurr, an Australian journalist and photographer travel to the Philippines to investigate a covert sex trade. There they meet a pimp and a transsexual prostitute. While away, the pair’s apartment plays host to a romance between the journalist’s sister (who should be feeding the cat) and a former story source looking for trouble.

There is no typical plot; the show plants the audience in a space and time with no answers to the how or why. Character relationships are also atypical. What characters encounter is complicated and confusing, leaving each utterly disconnected from the others.

Lines meant to evoke deep thought litter the play. And after saying them, the actors pause ‘ practically begging the audience to stroke their chin in dramatic thought.

The journalist, talking about a cat, says, “They lose their balls, and they lose interest in everything,” while almost winking at the audience.

The Filipino prostitute poses and pauses after saying, “Anyone can hate Americans. It’s almost too easy.”

The stage features several places at once, showing action going on at the same time. While lovers in a home in Melbourne make love, the reporter and photographer flirt in a hotel room in the Philippines, and nearby a pimp speaks with his prostitute. To emphasize this, the characters’ lines overlap, regardless of locale. The lighting helps pull this feat off effortlessly. It’s easily the best aspect of the show.

“Sex Diary of an Infidel” was slated for the 2001-2002 season, but due to budget deficits, Lou Bellamy, founder and artistic director of Penumbra and University theater professor, had to put the production on the back burner. The artistic team involved didn’t lose hope.

Four extra years to think about the production should yield a more refined product. But in this case, however, the work put into the character development was either too much or too little ‘ it’s unclear which.

The characters in this production are billed as “closed and remote as islands themselves.” Thus, the show must illustrate how connected yet disconnected these characters are.

But the disconnection is so overt that it ends up being misconnection instead.