'The Sexual Life of Savages': Theater Review

Ed Krieger
Pungently written and brightly performed battle of sexual mores with an up-to-date edge founders on past-sell-by premises. 

Suburban couples negotiate intimacy and conflict at the Beverly Hills Playhouse.

A couple planning on romance is instead waylaid by argument, a fundamental kernel of dramatic conflict with potential for rueful recognition by the audience. Hal (Luke Cook), a well-spoken guy with nagging reactionary tendencies, persists in pressing eminently sensible girlfriend Jean (Melissa Paladino) to reveal the extent of her past lovers, apparently determined to provoke his own recriminations. Irretrievably fixated, Hal picks like a scab at her rather ordinary erotic past, even while freely conceding that he is applying a double standard with respect to his own.

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No good can come of this, and it does not. Hal flips the scenario with his next love interest, Naomi (T. Lynn Mikeska), a neurotic virgin (presented as if that were a redundancy). Meanwhile, both Hal and Jean get dubious relationship advice from respective friends Clark (Burt Grinstead), a self-absorbed swinger with an unseen bisexual wife, and Alice (Melanie Lyons), who both have their own axes to grind.

Developed by Skylight Theatre Company’s estimable play development INKubator program, Ian MacAllister-McDonald’s smart-sounding script boasts a sharp ear for the casual candor with which sexual issues are discussed by younger adults. But its frankness masks a rather regressive view of conflicting gender perspectives. I’ve no doubt that men like Hal, ostensibly a stand-in for a regular guy, exist in our society and have no idea of how commonplace they are. Still, the syndrome dramatized seems so out-of-touch with prevailing contemporary attitudes that it tastes like very old wine poured from spiffy bottles.

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Instead, all one can think is that this fellow’s dark psychology simply makes him unworthy of the balance and honesty incarnated by Jean, played by Paladino (who was so fine in Murray Mednick’s Daddy-O Dies Well) with an earthy groundedness that enables her to act with integrity and compassion, and, even as she suffers her own unmooring loss, to recover and grow. Jean embodies a positive sense of possibility that the callow and shallow Hal simply cannot comprehend.

The Sexual Life of Savages, in its feints at suggesting some sense of the way we live now, echoes an updated variant of the early David Mamet success Sexual Perversity in Chicago, most fruitfully in the entertainingly pointed dialogue that gives these good actors a great deal to work with. Director Elina de Santos spins those words into rhythmically alert scenes that create an impression that urgent matters are being addressed. The play casts a peculiar spell that only loses its grip as it gradually becomes clear that its core dramatic ideas are so much less compelling than they have appeared. This ambitious, talented play, despite being in good hands, flounders on its central failure of concept and vision.

Venue: Beverly Hills Playhouse, Beverly Hills (runs through August 16)

Cast: Luke Cook, Melissa Paladino, Burt Grinstead, T. Lynn Mikeska, Melanie Lyons

Director: Elina de Santos

Playwright: Ian MacAllister-McDonald

Set designer: Hazel Kuang

Lighting designer: Jeff McLaughlin

Sound designer: Christopher Moscatiello

Costume designer: Kelly Bailey

Producers: Gary Grossman & Tony Abatemarco

Presented by Skylight Theatre Company