Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven
It may be old-fashioned, but we do prefer plays that tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end—whatever format they choose. How else can one be caught up in the situation and propelled forward with intensity, eagerly asking “what happens next?” How else to be captivated by the happenings on stage?
Modern playwrights often play fast and loose with the passage of time, but they are certainly expected to move the story forward. Not so with the current offering at Long Wharf’s Stage II. “Aphrodisiac” wanders all over the lot, in terms of time and circumstance, without ever a sense of forward movement.
Granted that playwright Rob Handel does have white-hot material ripped from news headlines. The stuff of his play could not be more relevant, dealing as it does with the political/sexual scandals of Washington. He uses the 2000 case of Congressman Gary Condit and Washington intern Chandra Levy. Levy disappeared at that time, and her remains would not be found for about a year. Throughout the investigations, Condit acknowledged they had been “very close,” though he would not confess to an affair. Moreover, he steadily proclaimed his innocence, and in fact would never be arrested for this murder, but the implications would be enough to ruin his career.
Handel has written a kind of docudrama, fictionalizing the material for his own purposes, exploring the scandal through the eyes of the Congressman’s son and daughter. Though every one has new names, the events are essentially the same. He also draws frequent parallels to the Clinton/Lewinsky affair.
The playwright opens and ends with a scene between the lovers, with the final scene implying that Condit (Congressman Dan Ferris in this play) does murder Levy (Ilona Waxman in this play). In that final harrowing scene, the pair drive through the night, as the girl begs to be let out of the car, but the man refuses to stop. But unfortunately the midway scenes, like a hole in the doughnut, create a vacuum in the play.
Yet those midway scenes are of themselves witty and intriguing. Avery and Alma (Ferris’s children) use role-playing, battling, bonding, in an attempt to reach an understanding of their father. Even Monica Lewinsky drops in, shares a cup of coffee, and offers her own views on power, sex, and humiliation. Such monologues and dialogues are absorbing, as Handel explores the thinking process of each character, but it does not bring the story closer to resolution.
Sue Rees’ simple, unobtrusive set never gets in the way of the production, and Rob Campbell, Jennifer Dundas and Yetta Gottesman all turn in fine performances. Would that the material, ultimately, had been more worthy of their efforts! All told, “Aphrodisiac” is a disappointment, the whole not equal to the sum of its parts.
-- Irene Backalenick
December 7, 2004