In The Sensuality Play Justin Kuritzkes trains a fresh, fierce, and fearless spotlight on college sexuality, on rape and its aftermath, and on the lives of young adults in the post-9/11 era. That sounds like a wide focus, but it’s all disturbingly linked in this smartly written, well-acted piece of meta-theater presented by The New Group and now making the rounds of college campuses around New York City.
A sextet – no pun intended – of sexually active college freshmen plans a “sensuality party” – an orgy, in common parlance – to act out their freethinking ways. A participant known only as Speaker (a mesmerizing Jake Horowitz) describes the event in a long opening monologue, wielding obsessive but essential detail to reveal his and the others’ psychology along with the sexual minutiae. Seated casually on a couch amid the audience, his conversational (if graphically sexual) tone makes the revelations all the more shocking.
As Todd (Rowan Vickers) puts it later on: “We look out on the world, and we see a buffet of possible sexual experiences we might have, but then we all have to order one entrée at a time. Why not just have the buffet?”
Putatively, he’s giving potential new students a campus tour, but obviously he’s saying that question to us, the audience, not to the high schoolers. The whole play is constructed of such tensions between narrative and action, the story delivered as narrative, the characters being their real selves for our benefit – the action contained in the storytelling. In the second scene, Stevie (Catherine Combs) and Linda (Layla Khoshnoudi) relate warmly to each other, but reveal their affection in the course of addressing us directly. Their own revelations are as psychologically shocking as the events related by Speaker. Stevie is ashamed of her sex fantasy. Linda transfixes us with one that entwines terror and humor and elicits gasps. I can’t remember ever hearing so much nervous laughter from a theater audience.
Terror is the script’s background radiation, particularly the memory of the 9/11 attacks, which occurred when the members of this social-media generation were children. Those who were mature adults in 2001 may find it hard to imagine turning 9/11 into jokes and fetishes, but as Kuritzkes, who is in his mid-20s, shows us, for those who were youngsters at the time it’s an understandable reaction.
By the end the script has artfully used a variety of narrative techniques to give us six characters with all their contradictions, guilts, terrors, and in-and-out friendships. The sequence concludes dramatically and poetically with Barry (Jeff Cuttler), now a poetry-workshop leader, and medic-in-training Allison (Katherine Folk-Sullivan) winding up at different Occupy encampments at the same time – psychically linked since the “sensuality party,” and with the same terror on their minds.
With a high dose of humor and a fittingly ironical ending, The Sensuality Party is a disturbing, fascinating, weirdly funny dive into the psyche of a generation as seen through one very talented writer’s novelistically observant eye. Directed with straightforward sensitivity by Danya Taymor, it runs through May 13 at various educational venues in and around New York City. For tickets and schedule visit The New Group online.