Sexual Perversity in Chicago

San Francisco Bathhouse, 171 Cuba St, Wellington

16/08/2007 - 25/08/2007

Production Details

Written by David Mamet
Directed by Andrew McKenzie

Lighting designer Marcus McShane


David Mamet’s saucy one-act play set in Wellington’s stylist bar.

Sexual Perversity in Chicago is a wicked comedy that examines the lives of two men and two women thrust into the harsh and lubricious world of dating in 1970s Chicago.

These four twentysomethings – Bernie (Allan Henry), Danny (Martyn Wood), Joan (Laurel Devenie) and Deborah (Amy Waller) – trawl through the city’s nightlife searching for a connection in a world obsessed with image and identity, hardness, artistic liberation, machismo and women’s rights. The results are at once uproarious and poignantly telling.

America’s most successful contemporary playwright, David Mamet’s works are known for their clever, terse, sometimes vulgar dialogue, arcane stylized phrasing, and for his exploration of masculinity. He is the author of Oleanna, Speed the Plow and Glengarry Glenn Ross which won him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  He has been nominated for three Oscars for his screenplays for The Verdict, The Untouchables and Wag The Dog. 

This production of Sexual Perversity In Chicago has been tailor-made to integrate seamlessly with the architecture of the site specific location, the San Francisco Bath House, making it a unique and entertaining theatre experience.

Sexual Perversity in Chicago is for anyone who’s been in a relationship, is surfing the dating pool or has had suffered the joys of a one night stand – it perfectly captures the dilemma, confusion and fun of sexual liberation. 

“A vicious satire of a world run amok with permissiveness” – New York Times

Bernie - Allan Henry)
Danny - Martyn Wood
Joan - Laurel Devenie
Deborah - Amy Waller

Theatre ,

Impressive if a little dated

Review by Helen Sims 26th Aug 2007

The dim lighting, bar setting and music evoke a moody kind of sexiness that is the perfect backdrop for a play about 1970s sexual politics. It is obvious that the design team and director have thought carefully about the use of the space on what (I’m told) was an extremely limited budget. The set is the bar mostly, although we are to imagine it at different points as various abodes, an office and finally the side of a lake. To this end simple props and costumes are used to great effect.

The cast enter and strut confidently catwalk style up the middle of the stage towards the audience. The entire cast is made up of talented and attractive 2006 Toi Whakaari graduates, who exude energy and enthusiasm for the project from the beginning. The first scene plunges the audience in at break neck pace into the perils of the Chicago dating scene. Mamet’s trademark ‘no holds barred’ language is quickly adjusted to as Bernie (Allan Henry) delivers a colourful account of his most recent sexual encounter to his friend Danny (Martyn Wood). It quickly becomes clear from Danny’s questioning and reactions that he yearns for more than a string of one night stands. This is where Deborah (Amy Waller), an attractive artist comes in. She begins dating Danny, eventually moving in with him, against the warnings of her jaded kindy school teacher flatmate, Joan (Laurel Devenie).

The play had a kind of inevitableness about it after Danny and Joan got together, and I felt like it began to lag in pace from this point. Perhaps this is because the first half (the setting up of the characters and their relationships) is directed and performed with so much relish. We watch Danny and Deborah’s relationship fall apart, seemingly without reason, much to the satisfaction of their two friends. There are some enlivening moments, mostly provided for in the rants of Bernie, but otherwise the play seems to lose its way and its energy. The most entertaining scene for me was the encounter between Bernie and Joan, culminating in her offer to shake hands after she has mercilessly shot down his less than appealing chauvinistic advances. From about the half way point the space seemed to feel more cavernous as the actors use less and less of it and the characters start to feel more flat and device like.

The play does however make up some ground in the final scene, again featuring Danny and Bernie, two single guys again, checking out the ‘talent’ down by the lake. Perhaps Mamet’s point is that relationships in the age of sexual enlightenment and freedom are becoming more meaningless without their traditional anchors, but this message really fails to come through with much force in the end. It also struck me that if anything, modern relationships have become more complex, so the play feels a little dated a choice for a company aspiring to explore “the identity, anonymity and self-image of living in the contemporary city, and to provoke thought and discussion about our relationships to the architectures and social playgrounds of the day.” This is a laudable aim, and the choice of setting put them on the right track, but perhaps next time a more current and nuanced play could be selected. Saying this, Sexual Perversity in Chicago was an impressive outing for Deaf Chic Productions, and it is encouraging to see a company that at least aspires to lofty ideals.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.


Make a comment

Auspicious start for new company

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 20th Aug 2007

Written in 1974, Sexual Perversity in Chicago is an early David Mamet play that exhibits most of the traits of his characteristic style and themes for which he later became famous: short, sharp scenes, dominating roles for men, strong language, and a critique of American society.

The title tells us his subject is sexual relationships but the perversity is the lack of love and affection in those relationships. It has been described as a comedy about the vagaries of dating but it cuts much deeper than that.

Relationships between men and women are seen as sexual transactions that in the end are as cold and impersonal as the brutal business transactions that take place in his later and longer plays such as American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross.

Sexual Perversity is structured like the revue sketches that Mamet saw when he was involved in improvisational theatre in Chicago. None of the scenes in his earliest plays lasted more than eight minutes. In Sexual Perversity I doubt if there is one longer than four minutes, and the scenes take place all over Chicago: in bars, offices, shops, a kindergarten, a cinema showing pornographic movies, and by the lake.

A new co-operative theatre company, Deaf Chic, made up of ex-Toi Whakaari graduates, has chosen the spacious San Francisco Bathhouse to mount this four-hander play.

With the audience seated at one end of the large space of the Bathhouse which has a bar on one side and a banquette on the other, director Andrew McKenzie uses most effectively the numerous doors, the balcony overlooking Cuba Street, and even the audience area to allow the action to move with cinematic speed through thirty different scenes.

Danny (Martyn Wood), an office manager, meets and falls for Deborah (Amy Waller), a commercial artist, and eventually they move in together. However, each has a friend who prophesies disaster. Danny’s friend Bernie (Allan Henry) is possibly a latent homosexual and is terrified of women and emotional commitment despite his cock-of- the-walk approach to them.  Deborah’s manipulative kindergarten teacher friend, Joan (Laurel Devenie), believes that men are only after one thing even though, she says enigmatically, it’s never the same thing.

The four actors are terrific, though it must be said Mamet does give the men a much better chance to shine. All, however, cope brilliantly with the rapid fire delivery of the overlapping conversations, repetitions, and fractured sentences.

A bold and auspicious start for the new company.


Make a comment

The seventies revisited

Review by Thomas LaHood 18th Aug 2007

This production of Mamet’s 1970s classic is an assured start for new independent co-operative Deaf Chic.  Attractively marketed and presented, it has all the bite and punch required to attract a new, younger audience.  For a night of crisp, snappy dialogue performed with skill and confidence, it’s a very cheap option too.

Sexual Perversity in Chicago is the third show I’ve attended this year that assembles a cast of two young men and two young women around themes of urban sexual politics (the others were Circa’s Fat Pig and Part of Me at Bats).  In many ways, this show was for me the most successful of the three, yet at the play’s end I found myself wondering about the choice of this particular script for an emerging co-operative in 2007.

The cast are brutally brisk and efficient, nailing the confidence and frankness of the era.  Mamet’s steely-eyed and point-blank characters are somehow more believable than the grasping emotional types of Labute’s Fat Pig, though I am willing to believe that this is an accurate reflection of a changing American society. 

Allan Henry is well cast as the bastardly ‘player’ Bernie Litko, his machismo and physical confidence bringing the role to life effortlessly.  Laurel Devenie’s Joan Webber is a more difficult ask, with a subtler depth and range required.  Devenie performs ably, as do Martyn Wood and Amy Waller in the roles of doomed couple Danny and Deborah.

The real star though is the San Fran Bathhouse itself.  The bar holds up surprisingly well as a theatre venue, offering the neutral ‘black-box’ of Bats but providing considerably more depth to play with.  It’s certainly come a long way since the scody booze-barn days of Indigo, and director Andrew McKenzie and lighting designer Marcus McShane use a crisp, ‘less-is-more’ approach that uses the existing décor (complete with day-glo ‘Yellow Submarine’ psychedelic signage) to plausibly period effect.

The costumes were also a real highlight for me, especially Joan’s mustard-yellow turtleneck and beaded necklace combo, and as the design role wasn’t credited in the programme I will assume this was part of a more collective approach to art direction within the co-operative.

The play ends abruptly, almost inconsequently, and this may be a sign of aging – perhaps the play’s final beach scene (was Labute deliberately referencing this in Fat Pig?) packed more punch thirty years ago than it does now.  There are a few staging tricks that don’t work, too:  We can’t help noticing Wood and Waller changing costumes in the foreground while Henry watches television at the back of the set, and the ‘jump-cut’ lighting effects on the beach misfire.

Overall though, an impressive and entertaining performance.  So why do I want to complain about the choice of script?  Well, it’s partly because of the co-operative’s statement in the programme that they want to "make work that explores the identity, anonymity and self-image of living in the contemporary city".  The key word, of course, being ‘contemporary’, and while, as another theatregoer pointed out to me, the seventies is the decade that my generation sprang from, it’s a little bit of a stretch to claim it as directly relevant to the urban scene of today.

Beyond that, there seem simply to me to be facets of our contemporary social identities that are far more complex and interesting than those explored in Mamet’s or even Labute’s plays.  Our consumerism, brand loyalties, global anxiety, and information super-saturation colour intrinsically our sexual and social behaviours, and to deal in the sexual politics and gender brutality alone that Mamet does in SPiC just doesn’t seem enough anymore to me.

This, however, is a subjective, personal take, and I acknowledge that not everyone will share my disappointment.  I do thoroughly look forward to the promised future offerings of Deaf Chic co-operative.


Make a comment

Wellingon City Council
Aotearoa Gaming Trust
Creative NZ
Auckland City Council
Waiematā Local Board logo