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Sexual Perversity in Chicago

Never the Same Thing

"Sexual Perversity in Chicago" is the raunchy, biting, hilarious and occasionally tragic period piece about the intersecting love lives (and the concomitant discourse about them) of four typical, mid-seventies twentysomethings that launched David Mamet's illustrious career as a playwright. It's refreshing, entertaining, at times cruel, and simultaneously pointedly anachronistic and eminently relevant to the current "battle of the sexes", whatever form it happens to be taking today.

This carefully drawn period piece about the sexual behavior of quintessential Midwestern American specimens (Bernie, Danny, Deborah, and Joan) in 1976, when men had serious lapels and called women "broads", and women put up with it, sort of. In college, in the mid-seventies, no less, I roomed with two guys from Chicago -- dead ringers for the two buddies Bernie and Danny. And since I'm old enough to remember behaving, talking, and thinking pretty much the way these two urban yokels do, it's something short of terrifying to realize that we males of a certain age used to, well, actually be like that.

The play is a tightly structured series of vignettes that take place in a single multi-level set representing different areas of the characters' lives: the office, a bar, Bernie's apartment, Joan's apartment, and, in the center, the bed of Danny's apartment. We begin with Bernie Litko, Mamet's Archie Bunker, delivering to his younger tag-along pal, Danny, a gut-busting and near hallucinogenic account of the previous evening's escapade with a "19-20" year-old vixen with a proclivity for flak suits, artillery sound effects, arson, and ultimately, the ensuing squad of firemen.

While the details of the encounter are deliberately on the shaggy dog side, the style of the delivery is entirely authentic. We men instantly recognize the dialog -- we still bond with each other over such storytelling. Women are an impenetrable mystery to us, and recounting last night's score (or near-score, or, more commonly, fantasy of such) does somehow help us to deal with the mystery, even if it's only a ritual affirmation of our mutual mystification. The dialog is studded with piquant, quirky one-liners: "Tits are what you make of them"; "She's kind of intellectual - that's not necessarily a bad thing"; "…it tastes like the junior prom", (in reference to sperm).

Gareth Saxe (Bernie), David Jenkins (Danny), Marjan Neshat (Deborah, Danny's love interest,) and Joan (Deborah's bitter, bitchy roommate) all deliver excellent performances, but it's Saxe, with his endearing obnoxious machismo, who dominates. Mamet, by his own admission, at the time of writing did not understand women as he did men, and the dialogue shows it. The women are engaging, but they serve more as foils for male sexuality than as fully developed characters.

Mamet's skill as an observer of human behavior is masterful -- the sketch where Bernie and Danny check out women at the beach, expounding on their comparative corporeal virtues, is a caricature, but timeless and keenly accurate. We're reminded that the battle of the sexes still rages on. Women are probably still as mystified about men as we are about women. As Deborah says, "Men are only interested in one thing. But it's never the same thing."

Sexual Perversity in Chicago
By David Mamet
at A.C.T. (Geary Theater), San Francisco
Through February 5
$16-60
tickets: http://www.act-sf.org