Interact Theatre Company presents MJ Kaufman’s ‘Sensitive Guys’

Oversensitive, underdeveloped

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."

L to R: Lexie Braverman, Brett Robinson, Bi Jean Ngo, Maggie Johnson, and Emily Lynn tussle in the Men's Education Peer Group. (Photo courtesy of Interact Theatre Company.)

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.

Satire...

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.

...and substance

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

Our readers respond

Chris Braak

of Conshohocken, PA on January 31, 2018

"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 expect creating a safe space in the lobby for people upset by a play's content is just good policy, regardless of how likely you think it is that people will need it.

Author's Response

Imagine the trigger warning list for Hamlet: 

murder of father 
murder by uncle
implied mother-son incest
best friend's death 
scary ghost
dark castle at night
over 30 and still in college 
swordfights
stabbings
poisoning of mother
poisoning of uncle
poisoning of king (not related to him) 
poisoning of queen (not related to him)
sudden deaths of all of country's leaders 
ass-kissing (Osric, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern) 
suicide
drowning 
burial 
pirates
deranged singing 
indecision 
guy hiding behind arras in bedroom 
unwanted parental advice 
hand-to-hand combat
hand-to-hand combat in girlfriend's grave
hand-to-hand combat in sister's grave 
self-doubt 
marriage of mother to uncle
marriage of mother to uncle who's a murderer
body left in the lobby 
rival upstart from Norway with big army
the body of a king passing through the guts of a beggar
confusing words like "fardel" 
passed over for rightful crown 
possible exposure to over-acting by visiting players

Joe Paprzycki

of North Truro, MA on January 31, 2018

Gimmicks like a "safe space" have no place in serious theater. It seems to me that this show needed a boost to get attention, but this seems like a cheap way of trying to sell tickets. I also find it "coincidental" that this controversy again involves MJ Kaufman. Having to have a designated space in the lobby for audience members who are upset by the material either looks down upon the audience as needy children or is trying to con them.

In my teens, we went to movies like Mark of the Devil that advertised "barf bags" to get us in the door to see a bad "B" movie. We were teenagers looking for a Friday night thrill... not a live theater audience in search of the depth that great theater offers. It is disrespectful to thinking audiences that the writer of this play feels the need for the patrons of this play to be coddled. Many playwrights would love opportunities like this and would not resort to not having critics not review after receiving large grants (Destiny Estimate) and now this episode. These actions seem to be brought out by an extremely insecure writer who seems more interested in creating controversy than writing plays.

Maybe the artistic leaders who produce this writer should open their artistic windows a bit to new ideas, plays and different playwrights. But... like the Destiny Estimate argument, here we are talking about it. I hope this is not where theater is heading. It's much too valuable to all of us.

Chris Braak

of Conshohocken, PA on February 01, 2018

Gosh, I wonder what sort of attitude in the face of potentially difficult or aggravating or sensitive material a safe-space policy might be intended to shield people from.

Editor's Response

I think it's fine to offer a trigger warning so those with PTSD or other issues know what they're walking into. But once they've made the decision to see a show, the contract between audience, peformers, and playwright is sealed. I don't believe anyone should bail on a show halfway through, no matter how terrible, and I certainly don't believe audiences should be offered the option of fleeing in the middle of a performance because the material is too challenging. It's insulting to everyone, and contrary to the purpose of drama. But even worse, once again, this playwright is creating more discussion around what's happening offstage than what's presented onstage. That smacks of pure gimmickry, and considering the topics Kaufman attempts to confront, it's pretty appalling.

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