Blogging Broadway: Live Sex Onstage!

John Lavelle and Christina Pumariega in Catch-22 (Photo: Richard Termine) 

Full-frontal nudity in the theater is more prevalent than ever, and it’s clear that having naked or near-naked actors in your show can really help sell tickets, as I pointed out in a recent feature. But there has been so much nudity in so many shows over the past few decades that some producers and directors apparently feel more is required to get a rise out of the audience.

To wit, graphically simulated sex acts have been seen in productions ranging from low-profile fare to last year’s Tony Award winner for Best Musical. Within the space of a few days recently, I saw three Off-Broadway shows in which sex between men and women — and, and in one case, between two men — was so realistically simulated that I might as well have been watching a soft-core porno flick. For all the juicy details, read on…

In Catch-22, a stage adaptation of the Joseph Heller novel that’s now playing at the Lucille Lortel Theater, tasty John Lavelle has the central role of Yossarian, a World War II bombardier who chafes against the absurdity of military life. Much attention has been paid to Lavelle’s nude scene in Act II, but I for one was fascinated by the sequence in Act I when he has wild sex with a woman played by the lucky Christina Pumariega.

Of course, we don’t actually see their coupling; it happens with the lower halves of the actors’ bodies under a blanket or a sheet. (I don’t remember which; I was distracted!) But we see the thrusting, we hear the vocalization, and we definitely witness the climax of the encounter. Ah, the joys of live theater!

Geometry of Fire, a new play by Stephen Belber about a marine sniper who returns from Iraq and runs afoul of a Saudi American, is unfocused and overwritten. But one moment early on is bound to grab your attention, when the swarthy, sexy Donnie Keshawarz (pictured at left) as the Saudi does the nasty with Jennifer Mudge in one of her multiple roles.

For connoisseurs of hot onstage sex, it’s an intense 45 seconds or so. The couple does it while standing; we see Keshawarz from the rear, pounding away as Mudge clings to him with her legs wrapped around his body, gasping and yelping. The whole thing sure seemed ultra-realistic to me!

Graphic as the two scenes cited above certainly are, they’re like children’s theater compared to what you’ll find if you take in Blasted, the horrific play by the late Sarah Kane that’s now defiling the stage of the Soho Rep. During the first few scenes, there are several instances of non-consensual sex between Reed Birney as a reporter named Ian and Marin Ireland as a dim-witted girl named Kate. But the piece de resistance comes later, when a Middle Eastern soldier played by Louis Cancelmi rapes Birney’s character.  

Believe it or not, this attack — performed by both actors with their buttocks entirely visible, and with such nauseating realism that’s it’s hard not to avert your eyes — isn’t the worst moment of the play. Blasted also contains a lovely sequence in which the soldier bites out Ian’s eyeballs, and another in which the blinded, famished Ian eats a dead baby. Yes, it’s a far cry from No, No, Nanette! and The Pajama Game.

Louis Cancelmi and Reed Birney in Blasted (Photo: Simon Kane)

The Cancelmi/Birney coupling in Blasted is so horrific that it has no erotic quotient whatsoever. In this sense, it’s very different from the sex scene that seems to have been the major precursor of so much subsequent activity: Namely, the lovemaking of the beautiful Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in Spring Awakening, the 2007 Tony Award-winning musical with a book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik.  (The show is still running, but Groff and Michele have moved on.)

These two played late 19th-century German teenagers in thrall to their hormones. At the end of the first act and again in a flashback at the beginning of Act II, they engaged in the most erotic onstage love/sex scene I’ve ever witnessed — she with her breasts exposed and he with his butt fully or partially visible, depending on where you were sitting. The movements and rhythms of passionate fornication were recreated in detail, and the moment of orgasm was unmistakably reflected in Groff’s face and body.

Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff in Spring Awakening (Photo: Joan Marcus)

One can only imagine how actors can get through scenes like these with hundreds of onlookers present. I suppose they have to go to some special place in their heads and completely lose consciousness of the audience, their fellow performers, the stage crew, et al.

Like nudity, sex scenes can help draw us into a show — rather than pull us out of it — if they’re well motivated and if the show in question is excellent overall, as in the case of Spring Awakening. But when onstage nookie is intended to spice up a play that’s otherwise lacking, perhaps it’s time to say "Whoa" and leave the live sex acts to those who make a living at that sort of thing.