August 11, 2014
After last year’s Perfectly Normel People, Husband and wife writer/directors Thomas and Judy Heath are back at the New York International Fringe Festival with a new work, Bedroom Secrets, squeezing discomforts of romantic dysfunction in the otherwise cozy Players Theatre.
Ashlie Atkinson plays Robin, a psychotherapist, in a series of progressive glimpses into her sessions with a variety pack of patients that evolve over time. Scattered between these, Robin pursues her own romantic endeavor with a man named Paul. Atkinson’s performance markedly changes to a child-like hesitance with him, but it’s not enough to keep Robin’s overall character from flat didacticism.
It’s not that Robin is unhelpful, she’s simply a glossary in a Psych 101 textbook rather than a portrayal of humanity. She reminds us of cut-and-dry facts such as that what most fancy as schizophrenia is actually dissociative identity disorder, or that polyamory and monogamy are, in fact, mutually exclusive. Robin occasionally verges on profundity, coining personal distinctions between concepts like anger and rage, or whether someone is truly starting over in life or merely changing direction. They are thought-provoking, but, instead of being crafted, depicted, and developed, are each plainly stated but once.
The main interest of the work is that it’s a duet. Stephen Wallem plays the patients as well as Paul. Each character is distinct – Grant, a brash Wall Street broker, Tiffany, a ditz connected to her phone like an IV, John, a soft-spoken porn addict, Hunter, a southern homosexual, and Julia, a statuesque art appraiser who leaves her husband for a woman. Though they may be distinct, they lack souls in Wallem’s performance. His Tiffany is no different than any man’s teenage girl impersonation – and then you discover she’s actually twenty-six. At the same time, these mini-characters somehow develop more in their fleeting exposés than does Robin’s in toto.
The script privileges one-liners over specifics. Because the situations lack the punch-lines’ polish, the stakes the characters invest go no further than whether or not their relationships will terminate. Vignettes containing the same people reference nothing further than the contents of the previous vignette, crippling a sense that reality continues between corresponding scenes.
The progression of scenes, however, reveals a sly conceptual framework. Interconnected characters and Robin’s courtship with Paul renders what seems episodic as a through-line fragmented by Robin’s private perspective being the only visible action allowed. Wallem the actor uses dissociative personalities to perform; the relationship between Robin and Paul is one of doctor-patient countertransference in which seeing Paul in her patients allows her to continue with their relationship.
Ultimately, the secrets confessed are not so earth-shattering for a work self-purportedly “dealing with today’s sexual issues.” Perhaps awareness of this societal callousness, this expectation of crummy love lives for all, is the point. We often overhear these woes in public. To be underwhelmed by them in solely private contexts outlines a trend that our private space has spilled into our public space, leaving little room for a true zone of “no judgment.”
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews