Jane Anderson has managed what at first sounds impossible: a play about a call girl, but without any nudity.
But "The Escort," a world premiere commissioned by the Geffen Playhouse and opening Wednesday, pulls no further punches. With nudity less and less of a surprise onstage — it has been used for purposes lyrical, political, symbolic, and plainly erotic in works as diverse as "Frankenstein" and "The Full Monty" — "The Escort" takes off where the shock of nudity and sex usually end, using the story of a prostitute and her gynecologist to challenge strongly held beliefs about morality, family and class.
In an opening monologue, in a scene that will come as a relief to all but the true voyeurs, Charlotte, Anderson's title character, drops her robe and displays not her unadorned body, but rather, a naked suit that covers the relevant areas in a kind of flesh-toned swimsuit. Charlotte urges the audience to relax, to stare, even to take advantage of the darkness and get aroused.
"The whole point of the suits is that we're watching controversial scenes, but we can relax," Anderson said, chatting with director Lisa Peterson and actresses Maggie Siff and Polly Draper at the theater during the rehearsal period.
The suits also came as a relief to Siff, who plays Charlotte, and Draper, who plays Dr. Rhona Bloom. Neither had ever appeared unclothed before the camera or on stage. Draper, a veteran of the TV series "thirtysomething" who once wore a body stocking on that show to suggest nudity, joked that she had simply never been asked to go nude. In "The Escort," she suits up for a few racy scenes of her own. Siff, her near-nudity obscured with strategically placed sheets or male torso when she played Rachel Menken, a Sterling Cooper client and one of Don Draper's lovers on "Mad Men," noted that onstage nakedness is a different beast.
"With a camera, it's like one eye. There is something inherently intimate in that relationship. Being naked in front of a roomful of people, it's very energetically different," she said.
And there were more down-to-earth reasons for the naked suit, Anderson noted. "In a live performance, there's always the possibility that a male actor will get an unwanted erection," she said. "There's always the possibility that someone will bend over."
The suits did pose a technical challenge, one the crew continued to answer the week before previews began. Peterson found herself visiting sex shops with the costume designer, Laura Bauer, staring at ersatz genitalia to learn how to create realistic bodies that were still exaggerated — Charlotte's breasts are surgically enhanced, and the male characters are well-endowed. Siff, who imagined the suits might be "a sort of grotesque comment on nakedness or plastic surgery," found her costume instead to be a sensual, "very Marilyn Monroe-esque" silhouette.
"We had an aha moment with Charlotte's suit, which was about the nipples. The nipples make it work," Peterson said. "They're visual bull's-eyes. It's like Julie Taymor — you know it's a puppet, but you go along with the magic of it."
The naked suits allow the play to pursue still more controversial ground — beyond just explicit sex — that would seem gratuitous at best or deeply uncomfortable at worst without the costume. A male escort is naked when he reveals his family's thoughts about his occupation. But the same actor puts clothes on over his suit to play Rhona's online-porn-obsessed 13-year-old son. That lets the play explore what technology allows teens — constant access, at a distance, to sex of the plain, dirty, freakish and illegal kinds — and what happens when that distance collapses. It was a personally challenging theme for Draper, who, like Anderson, has a teenage son.
Rhona confronts still more sexual openness at the office, where the naked suits are deployed during Charlotte's repeated gynecological exams — including an onstage breast check. "You want the audience to be sort of pleasantly stimulated by them," Peterson said, even as they listen to Charlotte espouse her liberated sexual views, going well beyond those who claim to embrace, or at least tolerate in other bedrooms, all things consensual.
Though the subject matter alone may be enough to get people in seats, the Geffen encountered some problems promoting the show, said Joseph Yoshitomi, the Geffen's marketing director. Online ads — whether search term or banner — had to be revised and re-revised to win approval from online advertising partners like Google. Radio copy had to be carefully edited. And outdoor display advertising had to obscure the Geffen's chosen image — of somewhat anodyne and obviously inhuman blow-up dolls.
Getting the audience to stay in their seats posed another potential problem. Those hoping for a litany of outrageous acts will be disappointed; those expecting blushing glimpses and euphemistic dialogue won't be pleased, either. The play's direct overtures to the audience — including exhortations to chatter about the subject with one another during intermission — led Draper to consider one hypothetical conversation between a couple of theatergoers.
" 'I guess we're supposed to talk. Honey, have you ever been to a hooker?' " she said.
Anderson considered including a warning to the audience in the program, or even granting a free pass to walk out if they wished. But, she said, she hopes the audience won't leave until after the final curtain, and that they exit arguing about the play. .
"Will people make love after the play, or will they refuse to make love?" she said. "It depends on the person."