John Patrick Shanley’s Psychopathia Sexualis is structured like a heavyweight fight. For 90 minutes, this dry and witty romantic comedy teases and builds, taking its time to mix and match five characters like boxers featured on an undercard. The scenes are amusing personality studies and forward the storyline at a comfortable clip, but ultimately they serve simply as a warm-up for the main event. Shanley’s script is all about reaching the climax, pitting the play’s two alpha characters—a ribald New York psychiatrist with questionable tactics and a brutally gruff, beautiful, beer swilling Texas transplant—against each other in a penultimate scene that determines who’s the baddest on the stage. It’s only one scene, but it wields enough high-voltage attitude and verbal haymakers to carry the top of the marquee, as well as to make the entire play.
Like a lot of Shanley’s writing (he’s best known for the screenplay to Moon- struck), Psychopathia Sexualis is about strong, stubborn women rising above the constant mistakes and idiotic quirks of men in the pursuit of true love—and by true, Shanley means imperfect. In the first act, we’re introduced to a marginally functional older couple, Howard (Eric Prim) and Ellie (Beth Martin), their friend Arthur (Nik Geranios) and Arthur’s psychiatrist, Dr. Block (Don Fuhrmann). Arthur is getting married and he has a problem: he can’t have sex without being in the presence of a pair of his father’s old argyle socks. Arthur can’t explain the reasons behind his fetish—he’s been in therapy for it nearly six years—but now his psychiatrist has stolen the socks, and that threatens to torpedo any fun during the honeymoon. “I believe my psychiatrist could be evil,” Arthur says to Howard before convincing his friend to go fetch the socks for him. Needless to say, Howard’s no match for the manipulative Dr. Block. In our first taste of one of the dominant characters, in the last scene before intermission, Block works Howard like a marionette, eventually having him lie down on his office couch, where he forgets all about Arthur’s footwear.
Howard is a likeable character, but he doesn’t last beyond Shanley’s setup. Prim, who was last seen a year ago as a lead in the Missoula Children’s Theatre’s well-done The Boys Next Door, brings a Woody Allen-like stammer and a Wallace Shawn demeanor to the role. He’s the most engaging part of the play’s beginning, his character a quirky has-been investor with an inflated sense of accomplishment. And he’s a perfect lamb to Block’s slaughter. But in true undercard fashion, once Howard serves his purpose—introducing Block—he all but disappears from the rest of the play to make way for the next headliner.
Lucille (Kim Kempfert) is less firecracker than dirty bomb, a cross between a Jerry Springer guest, Norma Rae and Anne Richards. Howard describes her affectionately as a “hillbilly Aztec Evita.” She’s sexy, stubborn and unrefined, but with just enough self-doubt to be real. “Do I look like a napkin?” she sheepishly asks Ellie at the start of Act Two, wearing her wedding dress and drinking a longneck beer. Lucille’s presence provides a counter to Block’s dominance and when she’s clued in to the sock situation by her gossipy friend, it’s only a matter of time—and an apt John Wayne pep talk—before the broad-shouldered woman collides with the big-headed psychiatrist.
Part of what makes the bout so meaty is that Kempfert and Fuhrmann have turned their respective roles into more than just caricatures. They both provide some overwrought accoutrements —Fuhrmann’s too- thick Bronx accent, Kempfert’s exaggerated beer-drinking postures—but balance those potentially annoying bits with moments of authentic emotion and loads of piercing rat-a-tat-tat dialogue. And nailing that persistently rich and intelligent dialogue with the full onslaught of their characters’ powers is what the play requires.
The only downside to the climactic scene between Lucille and Block is that it isn’t the end of Psychopathia Sexualis. Apropos of nothing, Shanley’s script makes a sudden left turn toward a rushed and obnoxiously happy conclusion. It’s a false note to end an otherwise smart romantic comedy—a perfect date play—produced by a collection of theater vets who know how to handle the material.
Every October Productions, five longtime friends who met while working at MCT, chose Psychopathia Sexualis because it was funny and easy to produce. But simplicity requires talent, and thankfully these locals know how to package it with the aplomb of an expert pay-per-view boxing promoter.
Every October Productions’ Psychopathia Sexualis continues Friday, Oct. 27, and Saturday, Oct. 28, at 8 PM at the Crystal Theatre. $10.