“Looking back, I guess I used to play-act all the time.
For one thing, it meant I could live in a more interesting world than the one around me.”
– Marilyn Monroe, interview with the Saturday Evening Post: “The New Marilyn Monroe” – 5 May 1956
It’s often been said that what separates humans from machines is our capacity for abstract thought: we imprint feelings onto people, animals, and inanimate objects; we ponder the complexities of life and our place in “the greater scheme of things”; we commit acts out of vengeance, greed, lust, and sympathy; and most importantly, we dream. That which differentiates us from a cold, calculating machine is our ability to not to limit our thoughts to irrefutable calculation (which only a few of us can do correctly anyway), but the fact that we can close our eyes and ask “What if?”
This might separate us from machines, but not other animals. It’s been proven time and again that animals most certainly imprint, act on anger & lust, and definitely dream. But until they learn how to wear leather knee-high stilettos and brandish a cat-o’-nine-tails, we still have the monopoly on kinky fantasies.
Such hallucinations are par-for-the-course for Frances (Siobhan Doherty). The housewife and mother of two spends a great deal of her free time pondering such steamy fantasies, when not running a million errands for her family. Said fantasies often involving her highschool crush, the dashing Jacob (Rob Dario), ravishing her over the dead body of her husband. The kinkiest ones she jots down in her diary; which she hopes to one day publish her diary as a collection of erotic poems – her other great fantasy.
Frances’ husband Max (Tavis Kammet) is still very much alive. He’s the CTO of a Bay Area start-up, which means he often has to dash when Frances feels frisky. She’s usually able to confide her thoughts to her best friend Samantha (Claire Rice), an attorney whose marriage is on the rocks. Sam is more realistic about Frances’ slim chances of becoming the next Anaïs Nin, but revels in her friends active imagination.
This daily routine – and the walls between fantasy and reality – suddenly become shaken when Frances is encouraged to host a dinner with one unexpected guest: Jacob.
Before I go any further, I think a full disclosure is in order: I’ve worked with nearly everyone involved with this production, including playwright Rachel Bublitz and director Tracy Held Potter. I’ve worked with the two on their 31 Plays in 31 Days project and am currently enrolled for this year’s edition. Bublitz, Potter, cast member Claire Rice, and myself will all be writers in this year’s San Francisco Olympians Festival. What’s more, when I attended the production on opening night, I was given dish full of treats with my name on it.
Having said that, I didn’t really know what to expect going into this play. Knowing only that it was about a daydreaming housewife, I expected it to be something in the vein of 50 Shades of Grey, albeit much better written. If you’d told me in advance that I’d be watching some of the funniest sex scenes since the heyday of the raunchy ‘80s comedy, I would have said you were crazy.
Bublitz biggest strength as a playwright is balancing the over-the-top with the realistic. Herself a married mother of two, there’s an insight into Frances that seems confessional. She hasn’t fallen out of love with Max, nor he with her, but – as anyone who’s ever been in a long-term relationship can tell you – even the hottest volcanoes cool off after a while. The urge to drift into fantasy is natural inevitable and can be healthy, so long as its effects on the relationship are for the best.
And what fantasies they are! As choreographed by Daunielle Rasmussen, the first act sees each of the four main characters having their greatest sexual desire acted out for the audience’s cringe-worthy pleasure. Possessed of the sort of hyper-realistic contrivance you would expect from the average porno – and the sort of melodramatic characterisations you’d expect from a telenovela – the fantasy sequences are both hilarious and revealing in what they tell about each character. I won’t spoil them, except to say that you should imagine The Story of O as written for SNL.
Which is not to say that the reality scenes suffer, featured in both the first and second acts. Though lacking the mood lighting and sensual music of their fantasy counterparts, these scenes are no less hilarious and are far more touching. With realistic dialogue and subdued performances (for the most part) these scenes reveal why the characters resort to such over-the-top fantasy to begin with: each is desperately seeking a relief for the routine in which they’ve become stuck. To find refuge, even for a few moments out of the day, is often the only thing that keeps them going.
With the first act featuring the characters escaping into outlandish fantasy with no consequence, the second act is about how reality is rife with harsh consequences and repercussions for all actions. They spent so much time building things up in their minds, that when they get what they think they want, it naturally doesn’t measure up. And if the play has one genuine flaw, it’s how all of these threads are tied together. As the second act comes to a close, there is an explosion of action so at odds with the realism of the previous scenes that one wonders if the ending was another fantasy sequence? Though it doesn’t take away from all the good that came before, it seemed as if Bublitz were all too eager to resolve things neatly (and expeditiously) rather than naturally.
The performances are a pleasure to watch. The trick of Doherty’s performance as Frances is that she doesn’t want to stray from her marriage, but fate seems to be leading her towards it all the same. Doherty’s performance is nice balance between perky-but-waning optimist in the reality scenes and fiery dominatrix in the fantasies. Also effective are her two male co-stars: Jacob (Rob Dario), who goes from dreamy to anything-but over course of the play; and Max (Tavis Kammet), who clearly gets the funniest fantasy in the entire play.
It takes nothing away from the rest of the cast to say that the standout performance is that of Claire Rice as Samantha. As the character who goes through the most painful (and realistic) emotional journey throughout the play, Samantha acts as the harsh super-Ego to Frances’ budding Id. Potter and Rice (an effective director in her own right) make the wise decision to never take character so far out that an audience can’t relate to her, even during her most gut-wrenching scenes. She’s the one character who moves farther and farther away from a happy ending with every scene, yet she’s the one every will root for before the play is over.
What keeps the play moving is an unshaking energy throughout the production. Its narrative balancing act doesn’t sustain through to the end, but the journey is well worth the trip, even if the destination is not. And that could stand as an apt interpretation of both the story and daydreaming itself: as comforting as fantasies can be, in the back of our minds we know that the reality just won’t live up to what we thought. Still, there’s nothing wrong with taking a few minutes out of every day to imagine you had everything you could ever want. Including a sandwich.
(The Fantasy Club runs through Sunday, the 11th August 2013 at The Alcove Theater in San Francisco. Tickets can be purchased through Brown Paper Tickets here)