For a while now, wealthy stay-at-home mother Sarah (Anney Giobbe) has been a woman on the verge. Her daughter is always either absent or blasting music in her room; and her husband Alan (Christopher Holt) has become grumpy, addicted to eating Cheerios in bed, and obsessed with the end of the world. What’s an Upper West Side house-mom to do? For Sarah, it’s an acting class and an affair with an actor, in Marisa Smith’s comedy Sex and Other Disturbance. What could possibly go wrong with such a dalliance, and how could it possibly resolve?
The requisite moral complication and reality-checks come from Sarah’s best friend Ruth (Jennifer Regan), whose own husband cheated on her — so she has a healthy skepticism for her friend’s sudden twitterpated trilling about Eugene O’Neill and Bach and “the life force.” And so Sarah’s saga alternates settings between her own apartment, where she shares frank talk with Ruth or evasive talk with Alan, and the Tribeca apartment of young Niko (George Psomas), where she is plied with wine and vanilla clichés of sexual awakening.
The opposing psycho-sexual dynamics of Sarah’s two worlds (which alternate by way of a revolving upstage turntable, in Anita Stewart’s elegant set design) are indicated by their décor: Sarah and Alan’s chic Manhattan apartment is one of clean lines, clutterless surfaces, and tastefully harmonizing tones of wood, red, and eggshell. Niko’s apartment, on the other hand, looks rather spectacularly like a cross between a jungle and an opium den.
As the young actor holds forth in this botanically rich lair of iniquity, Niko has such seductive lines to deliver as “I have an amazing vinyl collection,” as well as passionate paeans to the “so much death” in classical music. To his credit, Psomas takes these ultra-tropes and runs with them, and is actually quite funny in his deadpan self-caressing narcissism, massaging even banal conversation with a variety of pelvic gestures.
What of poor apocalyptic Alan, the man left behind for Niko and his Bach-loving plants? In Holt’s hands he is sympathetic and convincingly human even through his broader comedic business — his anxious ranting about Fermi’s Theorum or his elaborately awkward shuffling across the room. We see deeper into his emotional life in his quieter moments, as when he simply looks at his wife, his hurt, love, and worry clear in his eyes.
Ruth’s worry is a lot more overt and sarcastic. Ruth isn’t buying what she hears of smooth Niko, and Regan is a lot of fun with her snorting, eye-rolling incredulity. Ruth’s own pain also lends her greater depth as a character, and Regan gives her a wry solidity that pairs well against the bird-like Sarah.
And as for the woman on the verge, Giobbe is amped up and antic, eager and cartoon-like. Much of what Sarah has to say is delivered with live-wire, high-pitched animation and comic intensity. Sarah, peeling carrots, produces frenetic orange confetti. The void that Niko is filling for her does seem reality-based; Sarah is certainly grasping for meaning for herself. She tells Ruth that when she volunteers at the food pantry or when she reads, as she puts it, “to my old people,” she’s doing it not for them, but for herself. That’s an honesty that a lot of upper-class do-gooders probably wouldn’t cop to, but there’s still not a lot written into Sarah’s privileged, self-absorbed character to care all that deeply about. Still, the douchier Niko reveals himself to be (and the more we see of his punkcore friend Kelsey, played with great taut derision by Eden Malyn), the more painful Sarah’s willful blindness becomes to watch, and the more solidly, if exasperatedly, we’re on her side.
I don’t think I’m spoiling anything in revealing that the affair does not work out. The only question is exactly how will it not work out and what exactly will be the takeaways for those involved. As the writing skims along, then comes careening toward a resolution, we get some haphazard plot and talking points — including a sudden lurch toward class consciousness and an improbable eleventh-hour civics lesson from Sarah. But make no mistake, PSC’s Sex and Other Disturbances is light, consequence-less comedy with high-production values and blithely performed, a breezy sitcom for the stage. If spring has you hankering for such a theatrical snack, it might be just the vicarious crisis you’re looking for.
Sex and Other Disturbances | By Marisa Smith; directed by Nadia Tass | Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave, Portland | Through May 20 | Thu 2 & 7:30 pm; Fri 7:30 pm; Sat 4 & 8 pm; Sun 2 pm | $34-63 | www.portlandstage.org