Anthony Neilson keeps to the dark side in ‘Stitching’

DARING: Anthony Neilson’s plays explore life’s seamier side.
DARING: Anthony Neilson’s plays explore life’s seamier side.
(Neale Smith)

To put it simply, Anthony Neilson’s “Stitching” isn’t a play for everyone. A grim and emotionally exhausting drama about a troubled young couple, the play sews anxiety in delicate psychological patterns before shredding the narrative fabric with moments of graphic eroticism. Those who object to dirty talk, simulated masturbation and black-and-blue sex scenes are advised to think twice before attending.

“Stitching,” which is in previews and opens Thursday at the Lillian Theater in Hollywood, gives local audiences a generous taste of Neilson’s provocative and controversial body of work. The London-based dramatist established himself in the ‘90s as an enfant terrible of the British theater world, writing about mentally disturbed characters with extreme sexual and violent compulsions. Today, his plays are performed all over the world, though usually in small houses that cater to adventurous theatergoers.

Speaking from his home in South London, Neilson says he writes plays in part as a reaction against the “middle-class talking shop” variety of drama that dominates English-language theater.

“I think traditional theater has a narrow set of concerns, which is why it’s not as popular among younger generations,” he explains. “It’s not addressing concerns of people who were brought up on darker material.”

“Stitching” tells the story of Abby (Meital Dohan) and Stu (John Ventimiglia), a couple who learn they’re going to have a child but can’t decide if they want to keep it. Their emotional conversations alternate with scenes from another period in the characters’ lives when they meet for no-strings sex, gradually escalating to something more brutal.

Neilson, 41, says the idea for “Stitching” came to him at a shop in Amsterdam. He was browsing pornographic magazines and came across a disturbing photograph of a vagina. (To say more about it would give away a major plot point of the play.) The picture stuck with Neilson, and it became the play’s central image.

Since its world premiere in 2002, “Stitching” has earned a degree of notoriety for its shock tactics. Last month, the government of Malta banned the play, citing blasphemy, sexual content and “obscene contempt for the victims of Auschwitz.” (In one scene, Stu describes having an orgasm over photographs of naked concentration-camp victims.)

The playwright says the reasons cited for the ban are “either hysterical or just plain wrong-headed.” He adds that the play’s open discussion of abortion is probably what the government finds most offensive (Malta is a predominantly Catholic country), “and that the other reasons are simply a smoke screen.”

In New York, “Stitching” received mixed reviews when it opened last year at Wild Project in the East Village. A reviewer for the New York Times wrote that the story lacked “a reason to care for these self-obsessed characters.” But the play managed to generate strong word of mouth and producers extended its run a few times.

Dohan, who originated the part of Abby in New York, says that playing the role was like dealing with “a bad addiction. I was actually happy to stop playing her and at the same time I wasn’t ready to let it go.” During one performance in New York, the actress was hurt during an intense sex scene. “I was bleeding,” she recalls. “It was my mouth. I didn’t even know until I looked in the mirror, and there it was.”

The sex scenes were choreographed by the actors and director Timothy Haskell. “The physicality is very much tied into their emotional state,” Haskell explains. “How it came out is more authentic than how I would have choreographed it on my own.”

Neilson’s other plays -- he’s written 21 in nearly that many years -- contain similar levels of extreme behavior. “Realism” (2006) features a scene of spanking and another in which the protagonist wipes his bottom in full view of the audience. “The Censor” (1997) includes several scenes in which a female porn director removes her underwear to make her point to a film board bureaucrat. In Britain, Neilson is often categorized in the “in-yer-face” group of playwrights -- an informal cohort of transgressive writers that includes Mark Ravenhill and the late Sarah Kane.

When not riling audiences and critics, Neilson works as the literary associate of the Royal Shakespeare Company. (“That amuses a lot of people,” he says.) He also dabbles in film and television; he worked briefly on the “Prime Suspect” series but was fired after a few weeks on the job. He’s co-writing a screenplay about the 19th century poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Neilson says he definitely isn’t through writing plays about the seamy side of contemporary life. “There’s so much theater in which sexuality is removed to please audiences,” he says. “I don’t see the point of toning it down. I think we should be truthful about it and explore it.”