Sutheshna (Suthe) Mani and Sarah Alida LeClair in “The Pleasure Trials” at Moxie Theatre. Photo by Daren Scott
It’s been more than 50 years since the initial publication of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” a tome of feminist writings suggesting that women take matters into our own hands, so to speak, and explore our sexuality. It was translated into 33 languages. Four million copies were sold.
But times have changed.
These days, everyone’s looking for a pharmaceutical cure for all our ills. Viagra and its cousins have been around for a long time. Men’s sexual pleasure and satisfaction have always taken precedence over women’s (those “enhancement” drugs are even covered by insurance, while abortion, for example…well, you know about that.)
Now, along comes Austin, Texas-based playwright Sarah Saltwick and her new play, “The Pleasure Trials,” newly revised since its Austin premiere six months ago.
Set mostly in a research lab, it follows two women starting Phase I trials of a new pill that will increase women’s libido.
Volunteers — mostly straight, both single and married, in a range of ages — are lining up. Trouble is, it’s a double-blind study, so half the experimental subjects will receive a placebo, and no one knows which half is which.
Given the highly encouraging preliminary results, is it all due to the drug — or is there a placebo effect?
While all this sounds potentially sexy and titillating (and there is some of that), there’s also a lot of T & M (trivia and minutia), which reminded me why, though I was in academia for years, I never wanted to go into research.
So much technical detail and waiting. What there isn’t that much of is humor, though the piece is promoted as a comedy. At least not in the matinee performance I attended. There are some over-the-top moments, however.
Marti Gobel directs three adroit actors: Sarah Alida LeClair as the divorced, work-obsessed, icy principal investigator, Dr. Rachel Milan; Sutheshna (Suthe) Mani as her bright-eyed, bushy-tailed (and boyfriend-frustrated) assistant, Callie Young who, since she came up with the whole idea of FDDD (Female Desire Deficit Disorder) in her thesis, craves more credit and respect; and Andréa Agosto as all the subjects, A (Anne) to Z (Zora), employing a variety of wigs, costumes and (sometimes fluctuating) accents.
Presumably, that acting choice was part of the intended structure of the play: one performer portraying an array of ecstatic, angry, impatient, complaining guinea pigs, but it puts pressure on the audience to remember which is which when they return and get more involved with the researchers.
Clearly, working with mazes and lab voles seemed a lot easier.
Introducing, punctuating and underscoring all this is expert cellist/sound designer Sharon Taylor, who sits on the stage and plays mostly classical pieces but also seems to be improvising at times — and throwing in a bit of Beatles when it suits her.
The scenic design (Yi-Chien Lee) is delightful, all pink and feminine with draped white diaphanous curtains, and rows and rows of shelved jars filled with pink, white or green substances that light up seemingly at random (whimsical lighting design by Sierra Shreves). The costumes (Regan A. McKay) change frequently for Agosto, and also make a clear hierarchical distinction between the long (upper echelon) and short (underling) lab coats.
At two hours, the play feels long, though the dialogue is often whipped out at a breakneck pace. Another few rewrites, and more humor, are in order. Trimming, yes, but also not leaving loose ends (what was the boss lady’s “secret added ingredient”?).
Saltwick is onto something, for sure. Her play offers plenty of food for thought, especially about what women want vs. what the marketplace/sponsors/ad-men think women need. The piece poses the question: If female libidos were significantly changed, would that alter the dynamic of relationships, marriage or monogamy? Would more — or fewer — people fight for gender equality?
Some of these provocative questions are truly no joke.
- “The Pleasure Trials” runs through Sept. 11 at Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd. in San Diego’s Rolando district
- Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday & Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.
- Tickets ($25-$48) are available at 858-598-7620 or moxietheatre.com
- Running time: 2 hrs.
- Covid Protocol: Proof of vaccination (and ID) required before admission to the theater. Masking is mandatory.
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.