Tonal dissonance surrounds InterAct Theatre Company's premiere of MJ Kaufman's Sensitive Guys. Advertising tells us it's a "wryly humorous" play about "working on your shit" — or, to be precise, "sh*t," since some people can't handle that "i."
Yet it's also apparently so incendiary the company created a curtained-off safe space in the lobby for anyone upset by the play's content.
I wish Sensitive Guys upset people, but its parallel groups of well-meaning college students — women in the Survivor Support Group and men in the Men's Peer Education Group — remain thin sketches of earnest yet shallow people who accept other's doctrine without understanding it. Those most likely to be offended are people who believe there's no room for humor in a play concerned with campus sexual assault.
Kaufman’s comedy works intermittently but doesn't serve the script's serious intentions. The 90-minute play's tedious pace deadens both.
The actors are all women or gender nonconforming, playing both women and men. Director Evrin Odcikin's fine cast switches ably from the nervous men, who ask, "Are we all rapists?" to the women whose group is so unmoored they're about to lose their funding.
There's much broad mockery of self-conscious, confused men flagellating themselves over their behavior toward women. "I'm afraid of women," one confesses. "Their dark, mysterious power!" They rush to condemn anyone who says girls (though they're all "boys" and "girls," barely adults). They play a version of "Never have I ever" in which they intimidate each other into admitting transgressions. They're miserable.
The women's group, at least, has a target beyond themselves. "He's a man, and he'll never get over being male," says Diana (Emily Lynn). New member Leslie (Maggie Johnson) asks, "Are you all man-hating lesbians?" The group's answers are humorously uncertain.
The women’s group needs to make a presentation to keep their funding but they reject each other’s suggestions as stilted and false — and they're right. They, too, are miserable.
Moments provide glimpses of substance: when Tracy (Brett Ashley Robinson) asks Jordan (Lexie Braverman) for a break from their relationship, both find the careful codes preached by their groups inadequate. A women's therapy session summons specific examples of dealing with rape culture: "The better I look," one says about men's persistent attention, "the less safe I feel." Diana rejects compliments about her angry feminist songs from Pete (Bi Jean Ngo) until he mentions that his mother is a fan.
Melpomene Katakalos's set, a dark-wood college library featuring a portrait of the school's white, middle-aged founder, oversees all as a constant reminder of institutional negligence.
Sensitive Guys also bogs down in an assault case. Leslie says a male group member raped her during consensual sex, but she doesn't identify the perpetrator. She fictionalizes the experience for a creative-writing assignment and peer mentor Tyler (Robinson) rejects the scenario as "unbelievable."
The student sort-of confesses to his advisor that he did “a really bad thing”; the advisor advises him to let it disappear. This result is sadly typical of campus rape allegations but has no dramatic resolution for either student, or for us.
Instead, the play's inconclusive ending includes a protest during which the audience receives flyers with real information: telephone numbers for Women Organized Against Rape and the National Sexual Assault Hotline and statistics about college sexual assault. That piece of paper proves more real, valuable, and disturbing than Sensitive Guys.