The writer and actress Sarah Jones is gorgeous, about 8 feet tall (at least it seems that way) and rail thin, with a wide mane of hair. When she walks onstage at the Geffen Playhouse, where she is performing her one-woman show “Sell/Buy/Date” through April 15, it’s impossible to imagine her hiding in plain sight.
But that’s what she proceeds to do, over and over again, for the next 85 minutes. Without actually going anywhere, or altering her appearance beyond slipping on a pair of glasses, she becomes a series of different women and men: an elderly Jewish woman, a lingo-spouting college student with severe vocal fry, a retired New York vice cop, a reformed-pimp-turned-motivational-speaker.
Each new character weaves an illusion so powerful that whenever one occupies her body, Sarah Jones is nowhere to be seen.
Jones isn’t the only performance artist to play multiple personae, but her virtuosity puts her in a different category: She’s so good it’s almost creepy. She can — and does — persuasively replicate any accent the human tongue has developed, a gift in and of itself, but the accent is only a small aspect of each transformation.
The vocal timbre and cadence, the facial expression, the stance, even the sense of humor of every one of her characters is so distinctive that collectively they threaten our most basic assumptions about human identity. Although some of her characters are more satirically drawn than others, none is inherently unsympathetic. Jones obviously likes her people. She makes them feel real.
It would be worth the price of a ticket just to watch Jones do this trick over and over, but “Sell/Buy/Date” is more than a magic show. It’s also a sophisticated piece of storytelling. Not every narrative risk Jones takes pays off, and sometimes her sociopolitical agenda feels a bit oversimplified, or on the nose. But when her plotting, argument and wit all work together, the effect is dazzling.
An exploration of the sex industry (including pornography and prostitution) and how it permeates our culture, “Sell/Buy/Date” premiered at the Manhattan Theatre Club soon after the 2016 election. Jones’ feminist views on sex work and its consequences for women and men alike aren’t hard to guess, but her clever narrative framework makes her arguments feel dispassionate and playful, not polemical.
She introduces herself as Dr. Serene Campbell, a poised British professor who is delivering a social history lecture. Her topic is the sexual mores of the benighted past — that is, our present. Campbell and her students live in the future, in a reality so different from ours that she is obliged to define a lot of terms for them. People in the early 2000s carried “external” cellular phones, she explains. They sorted themselves and each other into “ethnic groups,” their understanding of gender was “quite binary” and they weren’t always free to travel among countries.
She holds up a Barbie doll, which she says she herself initially assumed was “an educational tool for anorexia prevention” rather than a plaything. She breaks off to remind the class of the definition of “dieting” as “restricting food intake on purpose.”
Obviously, a lot has changed since 2018. (Dane Laffrey’s futuristic-looking set, a collection of large screens around a white podium, chair and file cabinet, suggests a minimalist but hyperconnected cyber-reality.) The subject of Campbell’s lecture is how it all happened.
Instead of slides, she shows the class a series of interviews with people from our era. These interviews, we learn, were recorded with “bio-empathetic resonant technology (BERT),” a technique invented in 2019, which allows viewers to experience the subject’s feelings and memories. If not the most feasible of inventions — it’s reminiscent of the melding of computers and human experience in the Netflix series “Black Mirror” — it provides the dramatic pretext for Jones to slip seamlessly into her vivid alter-egos, who gradually reveal the phases of the revolution that turned our broken world into this utopia.
A lot, obviously, went down. There were some very bad times before things began to change for the better.
Jones and her director, Carolyn Cantor, who helped develop this piece, are able to communicate the many developments with remarkable concision, but at times you might wish you could peek at your seatmate's notes or consult the textbook.
While Campbell is teaching us about sweeping social changes, she’s also having a personal identity crisis, which we watch develop in real time. Some of the plot points feel a little clunky; a few of the monologues get preachy. But the intelligence, humor, empathy, fierce criticism and even fiercer optimism of Jones’ solo work make it a must-see.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends April 15
Information: (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.org
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes