- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2006

You would think a show titled “The Sex Habits of American Women” would give audiences a peep-show view into the boudoirs of both red and blue states, a Kinsey Report for the girls. Or at least provide the invigorating foreplay of laughter.

Think again. Nothing too darn hot about this play, which is a tepid and bisected look at sexual mores in 1950 and 2004.

Playwright Julie Marie Myatt hatched the idea after coming across the 1951 handbook by Dr. Fritz Wittels, “The Sex Habits of American Women,” in a used-book store. The tome’s overly serious tone and dogged attempts to scrutinize the female libido struck Miss Myatt as absurd, and the impetus for a play was born.

In a nudge-nudge, wink-wink gesture, Dr. Wittels has been renamed Fritz Tittels (Ralph Cosham, who rises above the puerile name with elegance and class), and he now has a dissatisfied Maxwell House wife named Agnes (Helen Hedman, bearing an eerie and beaming resemblance to Barbara Billingsley) and a surly schoolmarm daughter, Daisy (Teresa Castracane), who blames her parents for all her problems.

Fritz is roundly distracted by his life’s work, “The Sex Habits of American Women,” and although he proclaims that “I am pulling down the underpants of American women in public,” he fails to see what is going on in the drawers at home.

Tired of a sex life that consists of Fritz climbing into Agnes’ twin bed for a desultory session that ends with her patting him maternally on the back, the martini-swilling Agnes has hurled herself into a late-in-life affair with Edgar (Will Gartshore), one of her husband’s former students. He is brought to guileless life by Mr. Gartshore as an oblivious fellow of high feeling who makes such heartfelt pronouncements as “Only Agnes and Picasso can do justice to certain shades of blue.”

Meanwhile, it doesn’t take the 1950s equivalent of Rosie O’Donnell to figure out that Daisy is having lesbian stirrings. Interspersed with the “Peyton Place” melodrama of the Tittels are snippets from a videotaped interview with a contemporary single mom named Joy (Amy McWilliams). She appears to have had more assignations than all the “Sex and the City” girls combined — and her conquests include her interviewer, played by Paul Morella.

If Joy is the ultimate example of the women’s and sexual liberation movements, then pass me the chastity belt. Instead of exultant and earthy, Joy comes off as supremely selfish, as if the laundry list of husbands and lovers were nothing but a means to try to satisfy some yawning vortex of need inside her.

While the video sound bites are difficult to see from beyond the first couple rows, Michael Carnahan’s set plays peppy tribute to ‘50s sitcoms from “Leave It to Beaver” to “Make Room for Daddy,” with the fake fireplace, the Sputnik light fixtures, and liquor cart always front and center. Tony Angelini’s sound design also strikes a lush period note, featuring songs from Rosemary Clooney, Henry Mancini, and Cole Porter’s musical “Kiss Me Kate.”

The performances, too, are impeccable, starting with Miss Hedman’s swirling, shirtwaisted turn as Agnes. Miss Hedman spins those wide skirts and spike heels as if she were born a Barbie doll, and adds just a tinge of acid to the lines to make them sharp but still believable. Mr. Cosham gives Fritz the distracted, Teutonic air of a professor, but hints at something deeply kind.

Miss Castracane’s strong performance has Daisy lunging for approval and barreling through life wearing her discontent like an ill-fitting dress. Her opposite is Megan MacPhee as her friend Ruby, who is the bouncy and unquestioning personification of the ideal ‘50s housewife.

It is the play that strikes the false notes. “The Sex Habits of American Women” is meant to be about hypocrisy and secrets, but the play is glib and soulless, jumping between the past and the present without providing any resonance. Like an unfulfilling partner, “Sex Habits” leaves you high and dry.


WHAT: “The Sex Habits of American Women” by Julie Marie Myatt

WHERE: Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through May 7.

TICKETS: $29 to $49

PHONE: 800/955-5566


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