Happy Back at School with Union College’s “Sex Habits!”
There’s a giddy house of mirrors kick to ”The Sex Habits of American Women” at Union College’s Yulman Theatre. The play opens in the 1950’s living room with Haoyu (John) Jiang playing “Father Knows Best,” pontificating from his book’s introduction in what he blares will be his groundbreaking, exhaustive study of women and their sexuality. Of course, he has no real relationship with his wife and daughter. While he can spout about the need for love in his writing, he cannot see, hear, give or feel it in his own house. That the role of the retired Dr. Fritz Tittles is being played by a young college student with parents watching only makes this piece of theater more fizzy. What are the fathers in the audience thinking when they hear him say “We were textbook parents and look what’s happened to you!!”
The play works those themes of past and present informing each other as it also takes place in two realities. There is the 1950’s, where the Tittles are gearing up for the publication of Daddy’s book while mother Agnes (the compulsively watchable and very grounded center of the play, Helen Smith) strays from her marriage with a much younger colleague of her husband’s (eager and open Brendan Cullen) and their unmarried daughter Daisy (hard to believe it was an understudy performance by Sarah Wright) deals with her impending spinsterhood head-on. There’s also a next-door neighbor, Ruby (pert & winning Genesis Gonzales Villatoro) whose character gives birth during the course of the show.
Then, there is a contemporary story told in filmed projections projected on the upstage scrim directed by Jill Malouf which has a contemporary woman, Joy (playful and engaging Mia Villaneuve) being interviewed by an off-camera voice, Dan (Hestia Dowd) while being occasionally interrupted by her petulant daughter Katie (Rochelle-Leah Nuqui). The twice married Joy turns the personal questions about sex on her interrogator frequently, unsettling him audibly and eventually beds him.
Kim Stauffer’s production moves easily from living room fracas to restaurant assignations and a neat sliding reveal of twin beds on Andrew Mannion’s simple, elegantly functional set that fits one of our favorite performance spaces neatly. The upstage scrim has a witty Warholesque print of a housewife with the tag line “Better living with your new Modern Wife.” If there was one hitch for me, it was the transition from play to film had a bit of a lag time. Some of it was the transition to the projection but the filmed scenes also had their own rhythm which interrupted a great cracking energy onstage. The young cast did an excellent job listening and responding with a swift pace in the group scenes and Ms. Stauffer has brought out strong characters and vivid physical lives in all.
Naturally, during this time of Covid, there were interruptions to the rehearsal process but the grace, energy and enthusiasm of the student cast was palpable. One of my favorite moments of the evening came from Sarah Wright who appeared last night as an understudy. In her cry from the heart, she blasts her parents “You don’t need that chip on your shoulder and I don’t need to cry on it.”
There were questions due to Covid precautions whether the area’s campuses would be open to the public this Fall and it is a great thing they are. It is a priceless experience to attend student actors collaborating with the area’s finest craftsmen in their fields with deep resources on plays that would not be done, this one a Capital Region premiere. Only by attending the college performances can you say “Capital Region theater is back!”
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