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Men are from Mars

Positions
stars
Red Barn Studio • 1122 S. 3rd St.
5/2-11; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.;
Sun., 3 p.m. • $10-12
www.etix.com

It can’t be denied: women and men are different creatures. A few of my friends joke about the gender differences in a rather simplistic manner: “Men are stupid and women are crazy; it’s a matter of finding the level with which one can deal.” Local playwright Owen Dunne pens “Positions” in a way that magnifies such assumptions and puts a fiery (if not hyperbolic) head on the barriers and downfalls of love in the 21st century.

Husband and wife Leo (Mike O’Neil) and Hilary (Michelle Gagliano) have been married for 15 years, have kids, a home and, according to Leo, a lackluster sex life which could use an overhaul. They go about their nightly routines as one would imagine: texting and emailing their kids’ teachers (despite an agreement to “leave the kids out of the bedroom”), gossiping about what neighbors and friends have said, brushing and flossing, and turning down the sheets. What they aren’t doing is attempting to connect under the covers. Put bluntly: Hilary wants to be emotionally inspired and desired, while Leo wants physical gratification. How they go about getting it in Act I seems plausible in rectifying a mundane relationship: Go to a “Kama Sutra”-like book and engage in a new position every week for a whole year.

Gagliano plays a woman many of us know today. She is dedicated to her family, though controlling of so many of its trivial aspects. She nags her husband to put down the toilet seat and wipe his feet before getting in bed. Gagliano punctuates every snarky quip in antipathetic behavior. With O’Neil they are a perfectly coiled machine in a repetitive, dead-end scenario. It has become second-nature for them to bark and react in unison, and boy do they do it in a perfect cacophony of passion lost.

Dunne has a way with writing dialogue. Moments of the show are, indeed, funny. It can be loquacious and quippy, as well as fervently erratic and hostile. I applaud the characters for carrying the dialogue with verve. Without a doubt, there is a lack of chemistry onstage between this husband and wife. Gagliano shuts down her husband’s suggestions, insisting he plans too much and doesn’t act spontaneously. While their disconnect is understood, the audience could use some glimmer as to what made them connect to begin with—at least to make it seem their relationship once was engaging. Otherwise, we’re left to not fully cheer them on to make it.

When Gagliano’s character lets loose of her clear resistance toward her husband’s sex plan, a more lively woman appears—one who loves literature, especially Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.” The plot points nicely mark many parallels between the sensual man Hilary pines for and the “boring” one she ends up with.

Gagliano really embraces the free-spirited side of Hilary in the bedroom and with an appealing cuteness. Her wheel-barrow scene is a steal. Hints of her coy sense of humor shape her as someone who may be grounded in domestication but not without a comfortable love for it all. It becomes clear she’s a devoted wife who, with a little encouragement from her husband, can find joy and autonomy in rediscovering the basics of who they are as one. Still, Gagliano’s shining moment comes in Act II, when she admits to a stranger (Kathryn Leuci) her love of a newfound freedom; the liberation feels authentic.

As to not ruin the play and its gasp-worthy storyline (indeed, the audience’s jaws were agape at the reveal of Act II), I won’t divulge entirely why Leo is a despicable husband. But there are no two ways about it: He is. O’Neil plays Leo as a rambling, bumbling man of excuses and without a hint of remorse, regardless of what words he speaks. His inaction and ineptitude to own his anguish and his royal screw-up makes the audience very unforgiving of him. O’Neil doesn’t play this character with too much smarm, which may be one reason it’s hard to believe him as a misogynistic pig; it still doesn’t make him any more likeable. His sorrow for his family’s downward sprial falls flat, even if it doesn’t feel malicious.

O’Neil makes Leo most convincing toward the end, as he finally unravels. Even then it doesn’t fully come across like a madman conniving against the odds. Sure, that he’s a loose canon without any ounce of logic dictating the outcome becomes imminently clear, but he never seems threatening, which makes his demise less than magnetic.

The whole “men are stupid” reference comes in full-force with this character. He is someone who has destroyed his marriage so irreversibly and goes one step further to make things worse. While humans have a tendency to deepen the rabbit hole—and theatre audiences have a relegation to suspend disbelief—it’s hard to grasp in “Positions.” Playwright Dunne notes the headlines of all politicians and priests who have been caught in salacious situations as inspiration toward this plot. The difference is, even if not completely comprehensible, these men are on power trips and more often than not don’t get caught. That’s reason enough to somewhat make sense of it in our heads, even if we don’t forgive them. A regular ol’ Joe at 310 Archer Way may also want that power trip, but I, as an audience member, need to understand so much as true. While I don’t need to forgive him, I want to get to the root and foundation of the double life he pursues. Without it, I’m watching a character for whom I don’t care—regardless of his “position.”

More so, the stepping stones from Leo being a high-school geography teacher with a bad sex life to an untrustworthy scoundrel with a perversion toward Internet porn (and then some) doesn’t flow. Often, steps and indications, even if small, become apparent in one’s fall to the bottom. Here, it whips by with too many holes, represented by too many scene changes. On paper, I have no doubt “Positions” reads wonderfully, but onstage fluidity could use some work.

When the prostitute, Cassandra, is introduced, Kathryn Leuci exposes expected fishnets and a trashy blonde wig, Daisy dukes and thigh-high boots. It all colors her bad. Once Leuci shows the nuances of her character, stereotypes melt away. She vacillates between being fully entwined in the script and detached from it, which works for her character’s “profession.” There are moments of real connection between her and Leo, and Leuci knows how to sell it as a girl ready to please and one who wants comfort in real love and life. The awkward closeness she and Leo embark upon becomes creepy and hints at a plot twist, but this never reaches its full potential.
With Gagliano, Leuci’s park scene is her shining moment. Her speedy dialogue, down-to-earth mien and common sense makes her likeable. I wish we could have seen other moments she shared with the character Hilary, as noted in the script. In fact, more interaction between the women could have boosted the overall effect of the show, especially if some of the downtime onstage with Leo pacing about were deleted; it didn’t make him any more convincing in his scheme.

Director Steve Bakunas’ set is magnificent! Its conversion offers a clear and concise parallel between what was, is and will be in Leo’s future. The seedy motel room is especially effective in its design aesthetic. Bakunas masterfully shows how a small, intimate space can be transformed into a grandiose backdrop.

Anyone with a deterence toward profanity or sexual provocation should stay at home. “Positions” most definitely calls for mature audiences only. It’s great to see local, original scripts brought to life at Red Barn. Onstage, this is a good first-run; I hope to see “Positions” again with a few more tweaks and some finesse.

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