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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Let’s say you’re watching a play where a man unexpectedly encounters his former lover while his new bride makes breakfast in the next room. Would you rather see the exes make out or cover their passion with small talk?
Either way, you’ll get what you’re looking for in Sheila Callaghan’s Lascivious Something, now playing at Women’s Project. The way she tells it, the old flames passionately kiss, then the scene resets itself and they make pleasant conversation.
Callaghan calls it “versioning:” Throughout the play, which charts an explosive love triangle on a Greek island, characters say and do brash things, then they start over and approach the same situation in a more civilized way.
These stops and starts reflect both romantic confusion and the play’s larger political ideas.
After all, it takes place in 1980, on the eve of Ronald Regan’s presidential election, and the ex-lovers, August and Liza, are Americans. August is a former activist who’s trying to escape his past by living in a Greek paradise, but when Liza arrives, she brings uncomfortable memories and unpleasant accusations about what he should be doing.
“August’s life has been fragmented since he made the decision to leave activism,” Callaghan says. “It’s kind of like the way our country has been fragmented since Reagan was elected.”
Structurally, then, the stuttering scenes suggest both characters and countries that wrestle with an identity crisis.
Callaghan argues that every version of a scene should be considered valid. “I don’t want to say that one is real and one is false,” she says.
In other words, when August and Liza reunite, they kiss, and they also make small talk. Both versions, no matter how contradictory, belong in the story. Just because pieces oppose each other, that doesn't mean they can't be part of the same identity.
For this production, Callaghan has faced contradictions of her own. When the play premiered in Los Angeles in March, it had a very realistic set. In New York, however, the set, designed by Marsha Ginsberg, is metaphorical, replacing an everyday room with gabions, the caged walls of rocks that are used to hold back landslides.
Callaghan says the designs have impacted how audiences receive her writing: With the realistic set, crowds talked mostly about the play’s personal relationships, and with the more suggestive set, they tend to discuss themes and metaphors.
Of course, Callaghan has arguably written both plays at once: A relationship-focused drama and a symbolic treatise.
It’s a contradiction she’s learning to embrace. “When I first heard about the set for this production, I was a little freaked out, because I was dealing with this literal, beautiful thing in Los Angeles,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is the environment of the play, because I went to Greece and this is what I saw.’ But ultimately, I’m really curious to see what play I wrote now.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor