Much like a play from Alan Ayckbourn, Leslie Ayvazian's Make Me, which opened last night at Atlantic Theater Company's Stage 2 in Chelsea, begins innocuously and comically in the suburbs, of New Jersey to be precise. Here, Connie (Jessica Hecht) and Eddie (Anthony Arkin) attempt to lend some spice (and restore a bit of balance) to their marriage/partnership with a little sexual role playing during the 25 minutes between the time when their kids leave for school and when he needs to head off to his chiropractic practice. From this rather charming opening – it's beyond amusing to see how these two go about the domination scenario they've devised – Ayvazian spins not one, but three tales about relationships where the balance of power has tipped, and in each, S&M games come into play. Unfortunately, as the play unfolds – with overlapping scenes and fugue-like variations – Ayvazian's promising premise and ambition do not always result in the most satisfying theatergoing.
Connie and Eddie's "session" ends badly and she deserts him, handcuffed to a chair to head into Manhattan where she'd scheduled a class with Mistress Lorraine (the sultry and commanding Candy Buckley), who attempts to train Connie in the finer points of the domination scene while Phil (imbued with a certain forcefulness by Richard Masur) looks on. He's one of the mistress's submissives, and the long-term relationship between Lorraine and Phil may actually be Ayvazian's richest story in Make Me: it twists and turn in marvelously surprising and actually quite saddening ways.
Sissy (Ellen Parker) and Hank (JR Horne), Connie and Eddie's retirement age next-door neighbors, are the third couple. They enter the action when they drop by to find out why Connie left in her dominatrix regalia (costumes by Therese Squire) and discover Eddie handcuffed to the chair. The idea that such sexual activities are taking place right next door simultaneously disturbs and titillates Sissy, and ultimately, she and Hank find that they, too, are trying in their own awkward ways to revitalize their marriage with some sex games.
This all can sometimes be incredibly funny. Parker's somewhat wide-eyed innocence attempts to spur Hank, whose dry dullness is beautifully conveyed by Horne, are a delight. Similarly, Hecht's nuanced portrayal of Connie – dripping with neuroses, neediness and desperation – charms. But other aspects of the play – particularly the overlapping of dialogue and the repetition of themes between the three couples – strains, particularly in director Christian Parker's muddy staging in which the sometimes simultaneous action becomes confusing. For instance, it's possible that theatergoers might misinterpret what's happening in Lorraine's dungeon (just one of three terrifically conceived playing areas from scenic designer Anna Louizos) just as there's a subtle, but incredibly important, shift in the dynamic of her relationship to Phil.
Equally troubling are certain inconsistencies and unexplored core issues in Connie and Eddie's relationship (notably his demand that she make two separate dinners for him and the kids). Also, Ayvazian doesn't sufficiently prepare audiences for the depth of emotion in Lorraine and Phil's relationship.
The lack of clarity in the staging, particularly for the sequence that prepares audiences for the revelations about this couple and what should be some of the most intriguing moments of Ayvazian's play, and some of the less fully developed plot and character ideas, ultimately undermine Make Me. And though it's a script that has the promise of being not only an intricately crafted comedy, but also an incisive portrait of three relationships at a crossroads, it feels as though it's one that needs a strict dramaturgical disciplinarian to achieve its full potential.
---- Andy Propst
Make Me plays at Atlantic Theater Company's Atlantic Stage 2 (330 West 16th Street). Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30pm; and Saturday and Sunday at 2:30pm. Tickets are $45.00 and can be purchased by calling 212-279-4200. Further information is available online at www.atlantictheater.org.