“If you push this button, you could kill all the heterosexual men in the world. I would be ethically obligated to push that button.”
So says Francis, a young woman unabashedly sharing the sexual disasters of her drunken dating history with friend Sandra over lunch at a pizza place. Written and directed by Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Clare Barron (Dance Nation) and commissioned by Off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company, the world premiere of her 2016 play Shhhh at Atlantic’s Stage 2 black box is an unremittingly graphic, often disgusting, and generally sickening exposé of the psychological after-effects of sexual assault, rape culture, and kink acts on women, and the desire for revenge against the men who “deserve it.” It’s an explicit and obsessive theme that’s difficult to watch, with uncensored language that’s repulsive to hear (for adults who aren’t into it), as it shines a spotlight on the haunting acts of power, pain, and pleasure it’s presumably intended to condemn, by refusing to be shushed (in what Barron described, in 2019, as “a #MeToo play”).
*Please note: The production includes a warning that it contains haze, strobe lights, strong aromatics, ASMR (which may produce intense reactions for people who suffer from misophonia), strong language, violence, nudity, and frank discussion and exploration around sexual assault. This review also comes with a warning that it contains spoilers about the content of the show.
Barron stars as the central character Shareen, a writer with physical symptoms of an undiagnosed illness (which may, in fact, be a psychosomatic manifestation of her unstated sexual trauma – including one of the more repellent and extensive no-holds-barred bodily descriptions and instances of TMI, of her explosive diarrhea while having sex with her friend and ex Kyle, which covered both of them). She is a transplant to the city from a church-going Christian family, along with her sister Sally (played by the eerily wacky Constance Shulman) – a postal worker by day and “Witchy Witch” during off hours, who hosts meditations and rituals (the siblings’ drinking of a magical concoction made of their own spit and menstrual blood, which they mix and ingest before us, also numbers among the most nauseating scenes).
The intriguing opening, of Witchy Witch conducting an ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) session in whispers, evokes the spirit of an immersive stimulation experience that encourages the audience to open up their minds and perceptions, and to “relaxxxxxx . . . Do whatever you need . . . Indulge yourself . . . You deserve it.” The softly suggestive and subtle mood is soon abandoned for a blatant in-your-face display of the repercussions of damaging sexual behaviors, the intent of which (at least I think that might be the underlying intent) is too easily lost in a work that relies on the shock value of words and enactments that become redundant, juvenile, tiresome, and ugh-inducing, and seem more suited for a sex club, porn site, or therapist’s office than the theater (e.g., Kyle penetrating Shareen with his big toe while he’s seated using the toilet and she’s recumbent on the floor in front of it; ugh. Oh, and he doesn’t wash his hands afterwards, but wipes them through his hair instead; UGHHHHHH).
There are also episodes of Kyle enthusiastically recounting the bloody story of the dismemberment of his friend’s cousin in a boating accident, and Sally meeting Penny for a date at a creepy Morbid Anatomy Museum with syphilitic specimens and a dissected female corpse, and later using a shock machine all over her body, with settings that run from tickling to painful.
With all that said, there are some covert observations amidst the overt carnality that raise the serious issues of guilt, blame, and a victim feeling the need to apologize; the power of autonomy, exhibitionism, and narcissism; the reversal of traditional gender roles and attitudes (with Sally as Kyle’s stalker, Shareen as the aggressor in their S&M scene, his stunned reaction, and Francis and Sandra talking about men in much the same way they note men objectify women); a telling phone call to her mother at her childhood home that closes the show and provides a contrast to Shareen’s, and Sally’s, life in the city (where, I might add as a New Yorker, they could be going to art museums, historic sites, or cultural events).
Along with the lead performances of Barron and Shulman, the supporting cast – Greg Keller as Kyle, Nina Grollman as Francis, Annie Fang as Sandra, and Janice Amaya as Penny – handles the disturbing material with ease and commitment, through the myriad of sexual encounters, personal interactions, anger, pain, and dark humor. And the design team, with set by Arnulfo Maldonado, costumes by Kaye Voyce, lighting by Jen Schriever, sound by Sinan Zafar, and intimacy and fight direction by Unkle Dave’s Fight House, create an appropriately dark and unsettling ambiance.
Depending on your taste, proclivities, and tolerance, you could find this blunt and unsparing play a total turn-off or an illuminating psycho-sexual exposé that provides catharsis for its bold creator, who chose not to remain silent.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 35 minutes, without intermission.
Shhhh plays through Sunday, February 20, 2022, at Atlantic Theater Company, 330 West 16th Street, Stage 2, NYC. For tickets (priced at $46.50-81.50), call (646) 989-7996, or go online. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination to enter the building and must wear a mask at all times when inside.