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Two writer-performers talk about sex in a pair of very different one-woman plays
In their new solo shows, Jacqueline Novak and Lois Robbins talk honestly and hilariously about sex, but they have very different takes on the subject. In Get On Your Knees, currently at the Cherry Lane Theatre but transferring to the Lucille Lortel on August 28, Novak, a millennial stand-up comic, presents a personal and intellectual history of blow jobs. Lois Robbins, an actress of a certain age, chronicles her romantic relationships in L.O.V.E.R., which begins performances at the Pershing Square Signature Center on August 21. Novak's show is lewd, sarcastic and heavily academic, examining the absurdity of physical sexual desires and acts. Robbins' piece is more emotional and confessional, beginning with her memories of childhood orgasms courtesy of the family washing machine. Despite their varying approaches, both writer-performers find it empowering to talk so openly about sex onstage.
"I just felt like I needed to say it," says Robbins, who's making her debut as a writer with L.O.V.E.R. As an actress for hire, she's never done anything like this before, and she admits that she almost got cold feet after the first workshop. "I thought, oh my god -- what have I done?" she recalls. "But by then there was no turning back."
Novak grew up watching male stand-up comics talk about their sex lives, and she wondered why more women weren't doing it. "So I was like, yeah, I'm going to talk about mine," she says. "Why wouldn't I?"
Novak developed her frank performance style over the years as she explored oral sex and other loaded subjects in her comedy routines in clubs and on The Late Late Show with James Corden and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Transforming the material into a one-woman theatre piece demanded some adjustments -- she has a director, fellow stand-up John Early, and comedy solo show veteran Mike Birbiglia serves as producer. But it still looks very much like stand-up: there's no set, just a microphone, and no costume, she's dressed in a nondescript grey jeans and a shirt.
"I am a comedian, that's my world," Novak says. "I'm bringing the work here and letting the theatre space give it some room to be whatever it wants to be, let it spill over the edges of the stand-up form. It's a choice to not hide from the stand-up piece of it and kind of draw attention to it."
Meanwhile Robbins, who's appeared on soaps and Off-Broadway, had the opposite challenge. She had to learn how to be comfortable as herself onstage and how to speak about intimate subjects directly to the audience. During L.O.V.E.R. she even talks about her bout with cancer -- a struggle she kept secret from many of her friends.
"Saying that out loud was so huge for me," Robbins says. "It was really like a coming out party. I learned I don't have to cover up anything. I think it was important to talk about all [the work of being a woman] because women don't. It goes without saying that getting older in the entertainment business is really difficult. It's difficult for women anyway. There's so much to be learned from our own experiences. I think everyone should write what they know and talk about what speaks to them."
For Novak, that's currently blow jobs. It's satisfying for her to have the stage to herself so she can get the last word, especially since she's previously complained that the problem with oral sex in real life is that "you can't narrate it."
"I feel really great at the end of the show," Novak says. "I think because by then I've finally fully said my piece and I can say no more."
Carey Purcell writes about pop culture and politics for Vanity Fair, Politico and other publications, and blogs at CareyPurcell.com.
Top image: Jacqueline Novak in Get on Your Knees. Photo by Monique Carboni.