The bracing, sobering and titillating are here, all at once, in this one-woman show starring Laura Campbell, and, though it’s not nitty-gritty graphic (no full nudity, if you’re wondering), it is definitely high art pornography. A play to see on a date? Maybe; it depends on if you’re up for being frank with your partner/spouse/date about what really turns you on.
The material must have been incendiary when it was first published in book form in 2004, in the tradition of intellectual erotica. It’s taken till only lately for a book like “Fifty Shades of Grey” to be mainstream. But this book examined obsession, sexual and romantic, and, well, let’s say it, man to woman butt-sex at a time when it was not only unfashionable but hardly politically correct to do so.
A simple, tasteful playing area/boudoir, an extremely comely (think Laura Osnes meets Natalie Wood), beautifully spoken actress in black negligee and chemise with high heels and a kittenish come-hither tone to her voice, and a literate catalogue of a modern, thinking female’s descent into abject surrender beyond the distinctions of love and lust. Do these elements add up to a compelling play? Well, they’re compelling, and the actress’s work is heart-felt; she has clearly personalized the pleasures and eventual pains of the memoir’s narrator. But what’s compelling really is the point of view: is this woman’s journey tragic or foolish or is it the necessary means to ascend into a full exploration and enjoyment of sexuality? The writing eschews easy definitions or judgements, which is what makes the point of view liberating and, thankfully, not very politically correct.
Memoirist Toni Bentley’s story is specific to her life: a Balanchine dancer (with an extreme objectification of her own body) and a spiritual seeker who ends up finding herself through sex (after losing herself through sex). I admit to sometimes wondering how many more descriptions of sexual encounters I had to sit through, but there is suffering and rapture in them, and the procession of stories made me consider my own sex life in relation to Ms. Bentley’s. She has definitely gone where not many have gone before, and she had the smarts to write about it while it was going on. There is wit to the writing: “After considerable consideration, I reconsidered,” frankness: “Managing my relentless need to be with him became a full-time job”, longing: “Is not every affair after the great one just another state of mourning?”, and unapologetic looniness: “The impossible had come to pass. In my ass.”
So, there you have it. A real story about real sex and real kink that asks real questions about real love. And about the penetration of a woman’s anus, by a man, over time. My reservations? I would’ve liked to have seen more of an overall context for this so it didn’t feel sometimes like a rambling tell-all, the story’s resolution was a bit too open-ended (a pun; I had to), and the actress Laura Campbell had a persistent gentility that, while fetching and right for the ballerina, hadn’t yet fully yielded in performance to the feral freedoms suggested. The night I attended there was a fascinating post-show talk-back moderated by the original publisher, with the author herself and two highly articulate writers about female sexuality, Laura Antoniou and Esther Perel, which brought a very powerful, present-tense discourse to the show. Such discourse is bound to ensue, though, after the show, in some sort, with whomever you choose to see it with.
THE SURRENDER, American premier of a play by Toni Bentley based on her book, “The Surrender, an Erotic Memoir” adapted for the stage by Isabelle Stoffel and Toni Bentley (previously presented in Spanish in Madrid in 2012 and at the Edinburgh Festival in 2013), directed by Zishan Ugurlu,
WITH Laura Campbell.
Set Design by Edward T. Morris, Lighting Design by Masha Tsimring; Sound Design by Palmer Hefferan, Costume by Madeleine LeClerc, Props by Louie V. Toscotu; Produced by The Carol Tambor Theatrical Foundation at the Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, Manhattan. The show’s schedule is Tuesday-Thursday at 7PM, Friday at 8PM, Saturday at 2PM and Sunday at 3PM through February 2. running time: 70 minutes, no intermission. Tickets at telecharge at 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com
or visit www.thesurrendertheplay.com