A New York financier with a great apartment has advertised in the paper for a roommate — specifically a woman. Her rent and board will be free, but she has to be willing to walk around sometimes in her underwear, and she can't entertain gentlemen friends there.
This is the premise of Ruth Fowler's play "Bled for the Household Truth," a disheartening, timely exposé of what passes for human intimacy in the Digital Age, now in its world premiere at Rogue Machine Theatre.
Maybe no self-respecting woman would answer the ad of financier Keith (Benjamin Burdick), but Pen (short for Penelope, played by Alexandra Hellquist) hasn't had many opportunities to develop self-respect. She's a brash and free-spirited Brit from Manchester who has, it is gradually revealed, spent her entire life being objectified, casually used and abused by men. Broke and effectively homeless, she'd do a lot more for a free apartment than walk around in her underwear. But that's really all Keith wants from her.
"I think our humor might be at odds," Pen remarks dryly during their initial interview, when one of her bawdy quips doesn't go over well. And that's not all. The two characters are at odds in every particular. Pen is scrappy, vulgar, blunt and chatty, willing to use her body as currency if she must but yearning, at heart, for an emotional connection. Keith is stuffy, judgmental and priggish, trying so hard to master his sexual impulses that he can never let his hair down and just be. He wants her to shut up and look pretty; she wants to get to the root of his psychological problems. From the audience side of the footlights, it's immediately clear that this rooming arrangement will end badly.
And it seems inevitable that long before it does, we're going to have to watch Keith masturbate.
Up until a few months ago, being forced to watch a man masturbate wasn't among the top fears of people either applying for jobs or attending the theater. As we are learning, it ought to have been. Rogue Machine arranged to produce "Bled" well before headlines about powerful men accused of having a penchant for masturbating in front of reluctant audiences. These news stories make the play feel topical but also, maybe, less dark and shocking than it was intended to be. These days, we're hard to shock.
"I imagine some of you may even walk out before it's over," Rogue Machine's artistic director, John Flynn, writes in his program note. Nobody walked out the night I was there. We could tell what was about to happen from the moment Keith stole the discarded panties from Pen's bedroom, and we patiently watched it all happen exactly as we had expected it would, with no twists or surprises.
The other graphic sex scenes, involving Pen's brutish friend Billy (Nathaniel Meek), are also more unpleasant than shocking. Maybe walking out would have been an emotionally healthier response, but like so many before us, we just accepted these experiences in hopes that they would lead us somewhere better. The payoff here — yet more evidence that men use women as sex objects rather than valuing them as people — may not be worth it.
This production has been lavishly and lovingly designed, with a beautiful set by John Iacovelli; effective lighting by Jared A. Sayeg; a lush, cool soundtrack by Christopher Moscatiello; costumes by Kate Bergh, who has fun dressing Pen in skimpy, cutesy outfits.
Cameron Watson directs with his characteristic attention to emotional truth, and he's particularly deft at staging the scenes in which Pen and Keith come close to connecting. The script, though, is so doggedly committed to its bleak view of human relationships that it requires him to cover the same emotional territory in every scene. Every time the lights come up again, Pen is trying, with her manic pixie style and broad Northern English accent, to break down Keith's walls — to the point where she's screaming, "Toooooch meh! Toooooch meh!" as he backs away with his hands up.
The thing is, Keith can't touch people. "I don't care if it will save her, I can't touch her," he tells someone. His dilemma may indeed reflect us as a society, but maybe at this point we need a break from the mirror.
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‘Bled for the Household Truth’
Where: Rogue Machine Theatre in the Met, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., L.A.
When: 8:30 p.m. Saturdays and Mondays, 3 p.m. Sundays; ends Dec. 18
Info: (855) 585-5185 or www.roguemachinetheatre.com
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
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