Dorothy Parker’s famous quip that “You can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her think” is equally true of audiences. Still, playwrights–especially young, insecure, or dogmatic ones–persist in trying to do just that. In Posing Nude playwright Mary Ramos mars what could have been a witty, graceful one-act by interrupting her story every few minutes with an intrusive narrator.
Referred to in the program as the “monologist,” she never comments directly on the action: a mousy secretary named Amy finds herself temping in the photo department of a magazine suspiciously like Playboy. Instead, the monologist tells a first-person story about a young woman raised in Kansas who loses her virginity in a silver Pontiac Le Mans, poses nude (once) for a photography student, and has at least one intense love affair with a woman. What this has to do with Amy’s adventures in men’s magazineland is never entirely clear–until the end, when, in one of the shows more predictable moments, we find out which of the many characters in the story the monologist represents.
Ramos clearly intends these speeches to create something like Brecht’s much-touted alienation effect: freed from theater’s dreamlike spell, audience members are enabled to think for themselves. But in fact these interruptions–which convey such truths as that boys are jerks in high school, it’s unromantic to make love in a car, being tricked into posing nude is demeaning, and a woman can be a more sensitive lover than a man–feel less like moments when we’re given license to think freely than like TV commercials. This is especially true at the end, when the monologist blurts out the play’s message: that a men’s magazine is the kind of weird, sexist, spiritually deadening place no sensitive, self-aware woman (or man, for that matter) would want to work at.
The story Ramos’s monologist continually interrupts conveys essentially the same message but in a less direct, considerably more entertaining and compelling manner. Through outsider Amy the audience is introduced to all the odd rituals and idiosyncratic denizens of a men’s magazine photo studio: the high-handed photo editor; the self-absorbed, self-centered models; the persistent callers–weird men desperate to meet last month’s centerfold and weird women desperate to become next month’s sex object.
Amy’s story contains moments of great comedy: veteran secretary Missy handles even the most bizarre phone calls–one comes from a playmate wannabe worried that her pubic hair doesn’t match the hair on her head–with incredible aplomb. But Ramos reveals her true gifts when she explores the dark side of the beauty myth: the empty egotism of models who have nothing but a “good body,” the dangerous and expensive extremes to which some women will go to achieve an essentially arbitrary standard of beauty, the degree to which both men and women are damaged and alienated by the dreamworld created in men’s magazines. Without tipping her hand or forcing the issue, Ramos makes crystal clear what a dysfunctional world Amy has found herself in.
Which makes it all the more mysterious that this playwright would junk up the simplicity of her well-told story with the monologist’s commercial breaks. Not that Ramos is alone in this: director Peter Regis-Civetta also seems to have felt an overwhelming need to comment on the action, and does so with alarming abandon: the abundant shtick includes a pointless puppet show with Barbie dolls. I guess it’s supposed to add another layer to the production, but it only adds another distraction to Ramos’s all-too-cluttered play.
Happily, Regis-Civetta proves much more adept at casting and directing his actors. There is not a weak link in this marvelous ensemble. That may explain why, despite the worst instincts of playwright and director, Posing Nude is still more or less a success. Darlene Hunt as sharp-tongued Missy and Andrea Beutner as shy temp Amy are great together: much of Ramos’s quiet humor succeeds because these two play so well off each other. Portraying the various models and wannabes who run in and out of the office, Heather Brooks and Tamara Braun adeptly avoid all the easy bimbo cliches.