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The Escort opens with lead actress Maggie Siff addressing the audience out of character, explaining that, because extensive nudity would be distracting, breasts and genitalia will therefore be simulated by Laura Bauer’s discreet molds and body stockings. The calculation is accurate, although the 99-Cent Store-level distancing devices that persist throughout the play manage to be equivalently disconcerting and clunkily scolding. Playwright Jane Anderson has not yet managed to lubricate her exposition sufficiently to shed her own self-consciousness, no matter how fervently she urges the audience to do so.
Working girl Charlotte (Siff) is thrilled to find a nonjudgmental ear in her new doctor Rhona (Polly Draper), and Rhona is easily seduced by her curiosity about her new patient’s candor and self-possession. Charlotte appears to be a paragon of professionalism and positive attitudes about the altruistic virtues of sex work, while Rhona, the divorced single mother of a 13-year-old son, Lewis (Gabriel Sunday), epitomizes in her more conventional way a liberal tolerance marinating in a comprehensible vulnerability. Naturally, both prove to be deficient in awareness of the effects of their behaviors on themselves and others, as each is a destructive control freak of a distinctively different sort.
The first act especially stumbles in its near-paranoid concern about audience acceptance of its subject matter, reassuring with passages of informative education that audiences hardly need after decades of cable (the recent documentary on Eliot Spitzer actually conveyed more flavor of the escort world in what was essentially a subplot). Consequently, while much scaffolding is overcarpentered, little dramatic development is experienced before intermission.
As the plot finally thickens, Anderson and her players bring off a number of effective big scenes with well-filigreed dialogue and some satisfying moral complexity, although this is eventually undercut by an easy and unconvincing denouement. Anderson understands the central family figures substantially better than the sex workers, and the adolescent arguments of Lewis with his parents are particularly acute and tart. The urologist ex-husband (James Eckhouse) cuts something of a stock figure to which the actor brings a convincing frailty. Sunday is particularly forceful in an especially onerous double role. Siff takes complete command of the stage in character, and Draper is skilled, though both are crucially undermined by the still-gestating quality of the writing.
Anderson’s last play to premiere at the Geffen, The Quality of Life, was perhaps her finest achievement to date, but The Escort needs substantial reconsideration before proceeding beyond this run.
Venue: Geffen Playhouse (runs through May 8)
Production: Geffen Playhouse, Gilbert Cates producing director, Randall Arney artistic director, Ken Novide managing director
Cast: Maggie Siff, Polly Draper, James Eckhouse, Gabriel Sunday
Director: Lisa Peterson
Sets: Richard Hoover
Lighting: Rand Ryan
Costumes: Laura Bauer
Original music and sound design: Paul James Prendergast
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