SENSITIVE GUYS (InterAct): Satirizing the dialectic of sex

Emily Lynn, Bi Jean Ngo, and Brett Robinson in female roles in SENSITIVE GUYS. Photo by Kate Raines.

Emily Lynn, Bi Jean Ngo, and Brett Robinson in female roles in SENSITIVE GUYS. Photo by Kate Raines.

InterAct Theatre Company presents the world premiere of SENSITIVE GUYS, a social satire by MJ Kaufman, directed by Evren Odcikin. What’s being satirized, you ask. Good question with several answers.

The play takes place at Watson College, a small liberal arts institution that values its reputation, and thus the last thing it wants to do is prosecute rape accusations. Like much social satire, this is already out of date; as anybody who is a student or professor at a college or university knows, Title IX rules the campus (this law prohibits sexual abuse, discrimination, harassment, etc etc). So, the pendulum has swung, as the lawyer sitting next to me mentioned, and the play’s cynical outrage at the college’s reluctance to defend the alleged victims is old hat.

The most obvious butt of the satire is in the title: sensitive guys, or guys who think they’re sensitive but still keep doing the stuff that makes them insensitive (ranging from rape to telling a woman walking down the street to smile). The Men’s Peer Education Group tries to work with the Women’s Survivor Group, but what happens if one of the Men’s Group has assaulted one of the Women’s Group? But because these characters are genuinely troubled by events, it’s hard to find this all that funny.

Sensitive Guys InterAct review

Brett Ashley Robinson, Bi Jean Ngo, and Lexie Braverman in male roles in SENSITIVE GUYS. Photo by Kate Raines.

Politically correct language (is saying someone is “blind” to a situation offensively ableist?) is another aspect of this contemporary satire, but nothing here is absurd enough to seem original, and the playwright dips into the usual arguments over acronyms, for instance, and winds up showing us how difficult it is to speak without stepping on somebody’s toes.

All this is complicated by the uneven cast of five who play both the men and the women, often without adequate distinctions. Maggie Johnson and Bi Jean Ngo develop the most convincing characters of both genders, while Lexie Braverman as the emotional Jordan seems unconvincingly male, although the implication is that that’s because he’s a Jewish mama’s boy. (Surely this is a good moment for protestation, but none was heard.) Emily Lynn plays both Diana and Danny and Brett Ashley Robinson is good as both Tracy and Tyler. None of these actors manages anything like charm or even likability, perhaps because there’s simply too much anger simmering under the surface of the performances and the script.

The set designed by Melpomene Katakalos is an impressive book-lined room with the usual portrait of the usual old-white-guy-founding-father; but there’s a difference between mocking an old-white-guy-founding-father and mocking a room full of books. I know, I know: books are hopelessly old school and that is a hopelessly ageist thing to say.

[InterAct Theatre Co. at the Proscenium Theatre at The Drake, 302 Hicks Street] January 19-February 11, 2018interacttheatre.org.

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About the author

Toby Zinman

Toby Zinman is Professor of English at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was a Fulbright professor at Tel Aviv University and a visiting professor in China. She publishes widely and lectures internationally on American drama. Her fifth book, Replay: Classic Modern Drama Reimagined, was recently published by Methuen, and she has just finished an essay, "Visions of Tragedy in Contemporary American Drama," due out in 2017. Zinman is also the chief theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. She was named by American Theatre magazine as, “one of the 12 most influential critics in America.” Her travel writing has taken her all over the world, from dogsledding in the Yukon to hiking across England.