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Review: Pillow talk gets graphic — really graphic — in Deaf West Theatre’s ‘Sugar Water’

Sandra Mae Frank and Tad Cooley try to renew marital intimacy in Deaf West’s production of “The Solid Life of Sugar Water.”
Sandra Mae Frank and Tad Cooley try to renew marital intimacy in Deaf West’s production of “The Solid Life of Sugar Water.”
(Brandon Simmoneau)

There’s a reason so many love stories end with the wedding. What happens later — the daily intimacy of marriage itself, with its late-night misunderstandings and morning breath — is often less picturesque.

In its American premiere by Deaf West Theatre, Jack Thorne’s play “The Solid Life of Sugar Water” skips the photo ops to dive straight into bed with a young married couple, Phil and Alice. Or if not actually in their bed, just above it. The actors playing Phil and Alice stand on the footboard of a vertical prop bed, but scenic designer Sean Fanning’s trompe l’oeil, bird’s-eye-view perspective makes it look like they’re lying flat, while we, hovering somewhere around the ceiling, look down on them.

Not everyone will feel comfortable with this forced perspective, which is a little vertiginous, a lot voyeuristic. Especially because what Alice and Phil are doing in the bed is trying to have sex. To be clear, the actors don’t simulate sexual behavior or even touch each other; they remain fully clothed. But they take turns describing their foreplay and bodies to us in language so blunt, visceral and unromantic that the most prurient onlooker could be forgiven for occasionally wishing to be somewhere else.

We’re getting Alice and Phil’s most private reflections, things they wouldn’t say even to each other, and they’re not mincing words. They describe each other’s bodies as feeling “gloopy” and “greasy” and tasting like chicken fat and worse. At these moments, even Phil and Alice seem to wish they could bail.

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This is the point, I think, of “Sugar Water”: Intimacy can be excruciating, hard work, a labor (literally) of love, and even at moments of the tenderest communion, there are still two separate minds at work, two separate experiences.

Fall theater season highlights for Los Angeles include a musical version of “Almost Famous,” Bill Irwin in “On Beckett,” a revival of August Wilson’s “Jitney” and a new stand-up show by comic Mike Birbiglia.

Throughout their struggle to get back together, Phil and Alice flash back to their past as a couple, starting with their meet-cute at the post office and eventually, reluctantly, arriving at a shattering tragedy a few weeks before this evening. Nothing in their lives prepared them for it, and they don’t know if they can move on. It’s a lovely recognition, if hard-won. Could it have been achieved without the agonizing birth scene (in which Alice’s labor pain is juxtaposed, mystifyingly, with Phil’s orgasm)? The jury is still out on that one.

Thorne (best known for his stage adaptation of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”) didn’t write “Sugar Water” specifically for deaf actors. But Deaf West’s production is designed, like all the company’s work, to be accessible simultaneously to deaf and hearing performers and audiences. Each role is double cast: Sandra Mae Frank (Alice) and Tad Cooley (Phil) deliver Linda Bove’s ASL translation of the script, which is playful, inventive and vivid, while Natalie Camunas and Nick Apostolina speak the lines in English.

Under Randee Trabitz’s fluid direction, they create an unusually compelling emotional landscape. Frank (a star of Deaf West’s Tony-nominated “Spring Awakening”) and Cooley (making his Deaf West premiere) occupy the spotlight, but Camunas and Apostolina aren’t just narrators on the sidelines. They’re alter egos, inner children, souls — and when needed, other characters in the story. The video projections (by Heather Fipps) are effective in differentiating action from memory. All four performers are appealingly warm and likable, and their mature, matter-of-fact approach to the graphic language sets a helpful example for the audience in getting through the yuckier bits.

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'The Solid Life of Sugar Water'
Where: Deaf West at Inner-City Arts, 720 Kohler St., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 13

Tickets: $38.50-$75

Info: (818) 762-2998 or deafwest.org

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

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