Theater review: Intimacy Comes through Laughter in ‘SEXTAPE’

SEXTAPE 5“I know two things,” Coach Hambrick, a retired human reproduction and sexual development teacher and girls’ volleyball coach in Playhouse Nashville’s SEXTAPE (& Other Stories), tells us during one of his appearances in Nate Eppler’s comedic anthology. “One: There is no depth to the things you will put yourself through if you’re in love. And two: turns out everybody’s definition of ‘in love’ is miles different.”

True. But how do we bridge those miles? In SEXTAPE the intimacy we seek comes through laughter – even at their most absurd the situations and characters in this wickedly funny show encourage us to tear down the psychological walls that keep others out.

Eppler’s tart and tight script contains plenty of moments milked for maximum comic effect, but there’s also loss, longing and heartbreak within this new play’s seven pieces. It’s definitely for adults only, but nothing in SEXTAPE is gratuitous or merely included for titillation. I’ll provide a passage of his lines later, but first some thoughts on the cast that puts Playhouse Nashville’s first full-length show – and the start of its residency at Street Theatre Company – on its feet.

SEXTAPE 3Director Christopher Bosen – who keeps more than two hours of stage traffic flowing like honey – and Stage Manager Wilhelm Peters ended up taking on acting roles in the show after the departure of Jessejames Locorriere due to schedule conflicts. They and fellow cast members Jennifer Richmond, Megan Murphy Chambers and her real-life husband Jack Chambers do a marvelous job bringing the characters developed through rehearsals, and in some cases Ten Minute Playhouse readings, to humorous life.

Bosen is spot-on as Hambrick, who feels he’s let his former students down by not giving them a more realistic primer on life and the often bumpy roads couples may travel; he also plays a fellow whose mommy complex is out of control in “Motherlode.” Peters gets to shine as a role-playing hubby whose desire for sex with his wife (Richmond) while dressed as our nation’s 16th President has unexpected consequences when familiar characters played by the Chambers show up in “Double Penny”; he’s also a man who has a close encounter of a sexual kind in “Cold Fish” and a randy machine in “Mrs. Robot”. Both have been involved with the production process before they stepped into those roles (and both have been actors), but as any theater person can tell you, it’s one thing to watch others do it in rehearsals and another to suddenly find yourself on stage performing those roles. Bosen and Peters perform as if they prepared to play the parts all along.

SEXTAPE 1Richmond’s fine acting skills are on enjoyable display, particularly in the recurring “Sextape” storyline (with an equally engaging Jack Chambers) where her character gets much more than she expects from a purloined video. She’s also a hoot alongside both Chambers as an android with sexual designs of her own in “Mrs. Robot.”

Jack Chambers makes the most of his appearances in all the aforementioned stories, but his reactions to the recording we hear but do not see in “Sextape” may be the best of his wonderful work in this show; he very believably and humorously goes from highly reluctant accessory-after-the-fact to enthusiastic voyeur.

SEXTAPE 4Megan Chambers (who is a gas in “Motherlode” and heartbreaking in “Mrs. Robot”) comes close to dominating – but not upstaging – the proceedings with her comically charismatic portrayal of best-selling novelist Lorna Grey (we hear some excerpts from her bodice-ripping “Twenty Nine Candles” that make Barbara Cartland read like Beatrix Potter by comparison). In Chambers’ masterful hands Grey is indeed (to borrow from Eppler’s script) “the Tony Robbins of vaginas,” working the audience like a Sister Aimee for modern sexual and gender reformation:

Ladies, do you remember the moment you realized, truly realized, your man was stupid? Sure you do. And if you haven’t had that moment yet, oh, you will, I promise you. It will likely be when he’s dealing with one of his exes or when he’s ordering at a restaurant or when he can’t explain beyond four words why he likes a particular movie. ‘Explain to me again why you like Top Gun?’ ‘Because I like it.’

There is a moment when all wives realize their husband is dumb.

So let’s remember that. Let’s put that here. (She gestures to a spot in the air beside her.) Your man is dumb.

And men, do you remember the moment you realized your woman was a liar? Maybe not, because, you know: (She points to the Men Are Dumb spot.)

But she is. Women are liars. You’re not a liar? Well I was. And if I’m not emblematic of all women, who is?

It’s not entirely our fault. Men will believe anything we tell them.

I’m not mad at you. Nothing’s wrong. I’m fine. I’m single. I’m taken. I’m just not ready for a boyfriend right now. Three or four, and then only you. I’ll be ready in a minute. He’s just a friend.  I’d never cheat on you. I don’t think about my ex-boyfriend at all anymore. I love your mother. I love your friends. I love your apartment. I’d never try to change you. Oh yes it was great!

I’m getting what I want. I’m fine. I’m satisfied.

Really? Are you? Then why is my book selling so well?

SEXTAPE 6This show also sports great supporting elements. There’s a smartly designed multi-level set by Peter Vann complete with portable panels and a pull-out bed; Mary Jo Weaver’s excellent projections; Katie Gant’s focused and unobtrusive lighting and Colleen Garatoni’s wide-ranging costumes.

SEXTAPE succeeds because all the creative and technical elements click, but ultimately it is further tribute to the extraordinary wit and sharp observations of human nature that Eppler brings to all his plays. The author of City of the Dead, Larries, Long Way Down and other engaging works is an artistic treasure that greatly enriches Nashville theater.

Related Story: Playhouse Nashville Overcomes Challenges to Mount ‘SEXTAPE’

Playhouse Nashville’s production of SEXTAPE (& Other Stories) runs through March 10 at Street Theatre Company, 1933 Elm Hill Pk. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Tickets are available online by clicking here for $15 for adults for all performances (and $10 for college students with valid ID on Wednesday, March 10 only). There is also a $1.50 per seat ticketing fee. Due to mature themes, situations and language no one under 18 will be admitted.

SEXTAPE 2*Photos by Britanie Knapp courtesy Playhouse Nashville.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).

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