Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine profiled post-feminist sexologists. One of them, Dr. Meredith Chivers, a scientist at the University of Toronto, studies sexual desire by showing film clips of copulating heterosexual couples, homosexual couples, and Bonobo apes to men and women sitting in Lay-Z-Boys. The subjects’ genitals are hooked up to delicate instruments measuring blood flow in order to determine arousal, and they were asked to simultaneously type their subjective responses to the videos on a keypad while they watched.
The men in Dr. Chivers’ experiment demonstrated straightforward responses—the straight men respondedahem, positively to the straight couples, and the gay men to the gay couples, while neither group was turned on by the apes. And the agreement between the genital measurements and the keyboard responses were consistent.
The women, on the other hand, were all over the place—some were turned on by the homosexual sex, some were turned on by the heterosexual sex, and yes, some were turned on by the apes. Not only that, but the agreement between genital measurement and keyboard response wasn’t consistent at all. The article cites Freud, who asked, “The great question that has never been answered and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is What does a woman want?” A century later, Chivers’ answer, and the NYT’s, seems to be: "?!"
Last week, I saw two plays that also tried to make some sense, if perhaps not quite as empirically, out of desire and the desired. I saw Spring Awakening , an award winning musical that ran for a week at the Orpheum, and Hitchcock Blonde , an experimental play that opened at the Jungle on Friday. Now, I wasn’t hooked up to any machines with the ability to measure biological data, but Spring Awakening didn’t do much for me, while Hitchcock Blonde —well, as Hitch himself might've said—I found itstimulating.
And I’m a dude, so I’m pretty sure of myself.
Now Spring Awakening , an adaptation of German pervert Frank Wedekind’s 1892 play about the blooming pubescence of young German kids, won a mantleful of Tony Awards on Broadway and has developed a rabid following, especially among young people. For the aughties (did that term ever catch on BTW?) Spring Awakening is sort of coming to occupy the cultural territory Rent held in the nineties. In last Sunday’s Strib , Graydon Royce wrote about a 22-year-old woman from the University of Manitoba who has seen the show 78 times.
The play centers around three students: Melchior Gabor, a lonely genius who is concentrating on losing his and his peers’ innocence intellectually, Moritz Stiefel, an adolescent already suffering from performance anxiety, and Wendla Bergmann, a young woman experimenting with the rape fantasy. ( Zee Germans —such fun.) Their arcs, driven by brand spankin’ new adolescent desire (the genital stage—whoo!), inevitably culminate in melodramatic disaster (I mean, it was originally written in 1898): Melchior gets beaten up for being different, Moritz kills himself, and Wendla gets pregnant. So these are titillating adolescent stereotypes, and to a musical theater audience, maybe even transgressive stereotypes, but ultimately, they are stereotypes, and very two-dimensional stereotypes at that. And the musical’s American Idol -quality songs—over-emotive, Top Forty, Duncan Sheik-meets-Goethe numbers, showcasing catchy lyrics like, “I’m going to be wounded/I’m going to be your wound,”—just aren’t up to the task of filling them out. Maybe in 1898, these children were (at least) horrifying monsters, but after decades of teenage melodrama— Heathers , 90210 , Gossip Girl —is this stuff shocking anymore? Let alone insightful?
Hitchcock Blonde is a much deeper incision into what drives male and female desire, as well as the effects of that desire on the desired. Now, to be fair to Spring Awakening , Hitchcock Blonde is also an examination of stereotypical kinds of desire. In this instance, specifically, Hitchcock's thing for his tow headed leading ladies—Novak, Leigh and Hedren—and more generally, the middle-aged man’s mournful desire to recapture his own lost potential by being desired by a young woman, and the young woman’s desire to reach her potential by being desired by an established man.
The play’s set-up is fairly elegant. It alternates between a couple
interacting in the present day and a couple interacting in 1959. The present day scenes are between Alex, a 50-year-old professor (J.C. Cutler) and Nicola, his 20-year-old student (Heidi Bakke) at the Alex’s Spanish villa—they’re ostensibly on a "working vacation," examining a lost few reels from an unreleased Hitchcock movie which Alex has discovered. The scenes from 1959 take place between Hitchcock himself (Tom Sherohman) and Janet Leigh’s young blonde body double for the shower scenes in Psycho (Mikki Daniels). The body double is known only as "The Blonde"—shades of Quentin Tararantino's homage to Hitch, Uma Thurman's anonymous heroine in Kill Bill .
So, it's basically the shopworn thrust-and-parry between a pair of creepy old dudes attempting to proposition a pair of fresh young things, with both binaries commenting on the dynaminism of the other.
Why then was Hitchcock Blonde ’s set of stereotypes in motion any more compelling than Spring Awakening ’s? Possibly because, at thirty-two, I’m closer to forty-five than I am to fifteen (again, all guesswork—I wasn’t hooked up to any machines), but more likely because of its artfulness of execution. The technical quality of this play is on another level from what I’ve recently encountered—from the physical appearance and mannerisms of Sherohman, the actor playing Hitchcock, to the sharp-witted dialogue of the play itself, written by British playwright Terry Johnson. But it's the set design by The Jungle’s Joel Sass, that makes this play such an achievement. It took Sass, (stepping in for Jungle founder Bain Boehlke, who's on sabbatical) to see the potential of a play that has previously debuted in only two small theaters to generally tepid reviews. This is a theater production about film, and there is a triptych of screens behind the actors that flicker to life as Nicola and Alex piece together, using tweezers and an eye-dropper, the disintegrating black-and-white fragments, frame by frame. It is a very po-mo, highly technical way to build suspense—but it works, both as a whodunnit and an exegesis of Hitch's artistic psyche.
But the most interesting thing about Hitchcock Blonde was that, like any great art (or great science) it helps to construct meaning for its audience—and who doesn’t need a little more meaning when it comes to their love life? (Which is why I shouldn’t dismiss Spring Awakening entirely—that girl in Manitoba, for instance, obviously found some sort of clarity in it.) Like Dr. Chivers’ labwork, Hitchcock’s artwork consistently examines the full-of-suspense, double-back-on-the-murder-scene-twice, oh, she’s not really dead! dynamic between male and female desire. Hitchcock Blonde is an examination of that examination, but it’s not all graduate school about it—it’s weird and entertaining, with witty, well-written dialogue, delivered by professional actors in the midst of a remarkably complex multi-media presentation on a proscenium stage. And in homage to its subject, it takes the simple premise that no two people understand the same seminal event the same way, and drags out the ramifications to that paradigm to all of the most illogical Hitchcockian extremes, holding you in its sights for the duration.