'Sell/Buy/Date': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Sarah Jones in 'Sell/Buy/Date'
The chameleonic performer dazzles in her sharply written if narratively clunky solo show.
12/3/2016

Tony Award winner Sarah Jones' new one-person play features characters working in and around the sex industry.

At first glance, you wouldn't think that the tiny NY City Center Stage II would be able to contain the multitude of characters in Sell/Buy/Date. But since they're all embodied by the chameleonic actress-playwright Sarah Jones, the stage traffic is easily managed.

Jones previously made a splash with her 2004 one-person show, Bridge & Tunnel, presented by Meryl Streep, which won a Special Tony Award when it moved to Broadway two years later. Now she's back with her newest piece, receiving its world premiere in a Manhattan Theatre Club production.

Set in the distant future, the play revolves around a British university professor instructing her class about the past experiences of people working in, or affected by, the sex industry. Her lesson is enhanced with the use of BERT ("Bio-empathetic resonant technology") modules, which provide the opportunity to fully experience the thoughts and emotions of the long-gone subjects. Assuming, of course, that your "emotional shunts" are fully engaged.

The imaginative theatrical conceit provides a vehicle for Jones to display her incredible talent for virtuosic character transformations. There are many performers who play multiple characters in their one-person shows, but few who do it as seamlessly and effectively as the 42-year-old Jones, who shifts genders, ages and ethnicities with such fluidity, it makes you wonder if she suffers from multiple personality disorder.

Among the many characters featured are an elderly Jewish woman who resorted to watching porn to enhance her sex life with her husband; a Trinidadian home-care attendant turned sex worker, who pretends to be Jamaican for "marketing purposes"; an Irish woman forced into prostitution to support herself and her heroin-addicted boyfriend; an African-American pimp turned "motivational speaker, life coach and therapist": a young man attending his bachelor party at a strip club; a Native-American comedian performing at the "PornComedy Awards"; and a Russian, virtual-reality sex entrepreneur who runs a chain of brothels, or, as he describes them, "hotels with enhanced amenities."

The futuristic setting provides the opportunity for plenty of sly, satirical humor, such as when the professor shows her class an antiquated Barbie doll that she describes as "an educational tool for anorexia prevention." At another point, she asks the class, "What were male sluts called? Very good, they were called men." She also goes into great detail about the "Male Health Crisis of the 2040s," in which thousands of men suffered strokes, heart attacks and anxiety issues as a result of the unlimited availability of commercial sex.

Jones delivers characters who are vividly rendered and wittily written, making many insightful points about the complex subject matter in the process. And she displays an amazing ability to morph from one to the next. Playing the chain-smoking Irish prostitute, for instance, her voice suddenly takes on a husky, ragged quality that suggests decades of cigarette use.

Still, despite all of Jones' linguistic and performing aplomb, the elaborate narrative structure — including a running subplot involving the professor's worry over the discovery of her illegitimate credentials — proves needlessly distracting. There are so many powerful and real stories on display in Sell/Buy/Date — Jones based the show on extensive research and interviews — that the fictional construct seems superfluous.

Venue: NY City Center Stage II, New York
Writer-performer: Sarah Jones
Director: Carolyn Cantor
Set & costume designer: Dane Laffrey
Lighting designer: Eric Southern
Sound designer: Bray Poor
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club

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