Six Degrees of Fornication: That Crazy, Kinky, Wacky Little Thing Called Sex

Playwright/director David Wally’s Six Degrees of Fornication is a wry rumination on the many permutations of human sexuality. The title, of course, is derived from John Guare’s 1990 play Six Degrees of Separation and its 1993 film adaptation, with the premise that a chain of only six acquaintances connects – or separates — everyone. Wally applies that notion to sex, unveiling the entanglements of a modern septet of characters, as we discover who’s sleeping with whom in this bedroom farce about heterosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality, prostitution, masturbation, cross generational hanky panky, dominatrixes, role playing and more.

On the verge of marrying Ben (Gerald Downey), a “Mr. Nice Guy” character, the promiscuous Monique (Carolyn Ratteray) makes a startling discovery about her own sexual preference that throws the bride-to-be for a fruit loop. (In the opening sex scene played all or mostly in the dark we also learn, rather humorously, what Monique despises most in lovemaking.) The bed-hopping Monique sexpresses wild passion with different lovers – but during her Cabo honeymoon (given Monique’s lustful enjoyment of cunnilingus they’re ironically holidaying South of the border) with Ben, it’s clear that she’s feigning orgasm enthusiasm. As well as for the notion that she’ll be spending the rest of her life with the boring Ben, who may be the world’s nicest guy, but is quite a dullard in and out of bed with her.

Ratteray, who has an angelic visage and looks as if she just stepped out of the Gauguin canvas And the Gold of Their Bodies, skillfully conveys lust, disgust and pretense. The octaves of her acting run the range, from outrageous to subtle. As Ben, Downey pulls the wool over the audience’s eyes as Monique’s bedroom bore gets his freak on in kinkier pastures.

Fornication’s other main couple is Ben’s sister and Monique’s best friend, Lenore (Kalimba Bennett), and Melanie (Sally Hall). Melanie rails against her live-in lover’s infidelity – but another surprise awaits audiences as they find out what the jealous Melanie’s night job really is. Can you say “Mel de Jour”?

Judd Laurance portrays Melanie’s father, George, who is, symbolically perhaps, laid up in bed. A veteran thespian and acting/dialogue coach, Laurance of Los Angeles acts with a great naturalness that is completely convincing. Wally insightfully shows how George’s unhappy marriage has impacted upon Melanie who is, shall we say, acting out. In another twist, guess who has a, shall we say, indiscretion with George?

The two-acter takes place in seven bedrooms; in between scenes a couple of black clad stagehands swiftly rearrange the double bed, furniture, etc., to literally set the stage. Michael Rubenstone as a costume-clad clownish telegram singer and Second City alum Frank Payne in a cameo as a John usually into hanky spanky pay-for-play provide comic relief amidst the tangled web of angst and sexual politics in this romp that reveals the quirkiness of romance, relationships and sexuality.

I have two bones to pick with Fornication: First of all, the two main couples are interracial (that is, the actors of Company A; there is also a Company B that performs on closing night). In the “A team’s” production Ben is white; Monique is Black. Lenore is also Caucasian, while Melanie appears to be what used to be called “Eurasian.” But the matter of ethnicity is never raised in this dramedy, although race can be quite a combustible ingredient in relationship stews. Have we become so “post-racial” in the Obama Age that mixed marriages, cross-cultural relationships, et al., don’t even merit mentioning?

Carolyn Ratteray

Secondly, during the Sexual Revolution of the sixties and seventies, artists fought against great odds to liberate the stage, screen, page, etc., from censorship’s repressive restraints. Nudity, simulated sex acts, etc., finally stormed the barricades of Puritanism in America, with bawdy productions such as the musicals Hair and Oh! Calcutta and the scandalous Scandinavian film I Am Curious Yellow. While Wally’s dialogue is risqué and candid, unlike, say, the Sacred Fools Theater’s recent production of Bertolt Brecht’s first play, Baal, which had a truly powerful nude scene, Fornication mostly eschews nudity for lingerie and that old puritanical ploy and cliche, blankets.

If the performers are under the covers and covered up in a play about sex, and the show’s not willing to show skin, it makes one wonder: why do a story about that particular topic in the first place? If you don’t want to show naked people and depict sex acts, why not do a play about something else? Six Degrees of Separation was based on the ruse of an actual con man, and in a sense, this play about sex without nudity and where whatever sex acts there are take place under covers is a bit of a cheat, too, as well as a tease that doesn’t deliver. It’s like making a production about violence without showing any blood. Today’s artists should use the freedom their predecessors fought and sacrificed for. The relative prudery of contemporary creators who have the hard won legal rights but don’t use them make you ponder who won the Sexual Revolution, anyway?

Another point is that if fornication is defined as male-female intercourse per se, amidst Fornication’s various sex acts there’s not much of the old in and out taking place. Contrary to cunnilingus, what copulating does occur is not necessarily pleasurable and satisfying for most of those who indulge in it. The only character who actually seems to enjoy some good old-fashioned intercourse is the boring Ben, whose bare derriere is briefly glimpsed in the show’s sole glimpse of actual nudity. It’s also worth noting that while various forms of sexuality are sexplored, male homosexuality isn’t. Somehow, lesbianism is safer, non-threatening and even considered chic for “mainstream” auds. (Can you say The L Word, where almost every lesbian character in that Showtime series was more conventionally “feminine” than most straight females?)

Six Degrees of Fornication, which has been extended, skewers and scores some witty observations and points about that crazy, kinky, wacky little thing called sex – and about love, too. Wally’s obsession with dramatizing sexual themes includes his Quickies Too, which is also playing in repertory at the Whitefire. Given how incestuous Fornication’s circle of characters becomes, I just wished that this comedy of sexual manners and mores ended with the two stagehands ending up together in the bed they repeatedly moved about onstage, so they could get in on the fun. They too deserved a little pleasure following all of that sweaty work. After all, these stagehands are the ones who literally make the Earth move in this droll bedroom farce.

Six Degrees of Fornication is being performed through March 25 at the Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, CA 91423, on Thursdays at 8:00 p.m. For more info: (310)526-3039 or www.whitefiretheatre.com.    

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell was named after legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. Rampell is a L.A.-based film critic/historian and author. Michael Moore is on the cover of Rampell’s book Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States.

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