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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

You sit down at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood to see Jane Anderson's new play The Escort. The lights go down, a luscious red curtain opens and there is a beautiful, buxom naked woman center stage.

Now that I have your attention...a little background. Jane Anderson is best known for her play Looking for Normal which premiered at the Geffen back in 2001. It's the story of a man in a small town in Ohio, who after 25 years of marriage decided he was a woman and needed a sex change. At its best, the play is both a window into transgenderism and a beautiful metaphor for the profound, unexpected changes that long term commitment brings.

In The Escort, Anderson is trying to repeat that same alchemy. This time the subject is prostitution. Remember that naked woman? Of course you do. Well, she's the escort but -- she's not really naked. She's wearing an anatomically correct body stocking -- imagine a sexy muppet. That titillating bait and switch is both the promise and the disappointment of the play.

Our heroine comes out at the top of the play clutching her barely closed terry cloth robe. She tells us that the playwright has decided it might be a bit too distracting for us in the audience to focus on both a naked body and the play, so she's come up with a convention. Nudity will be portrayed like this -- and with the same gusto of a magician saying, "Ta Da!" -- she flings open her robe. And she stands there...for a while.

It's a brilliant opening. We've got the always powerful convention of a theatrical aside, which bonds us with this character because she's sharing something special with us -- not the flesh, but the privilege of direct address. Suddenly, the audience is made aware of our own taboo expectations and desires (or repulsions).

In this moment, we're promised a peak into a forbidden world -- a world where desire trumps taboo. Unfortunately, like the body stocking, the play's not the real deal. Anderson starts by challenging our assumptions and prejudices, but about halfway through the play she loses her nerve and pulls the rug out from under our hooker with a heart of gold. The plot turns go from far-fetched to unbelievable. We end up in a far more familiar moral world where the things we thought were bad...really are.

Even so, there are wonderful moments. At the end of act one, our call girl speaks directly to the audience again. She coyly calls out that the discerning man that can afford to come to the theater could probably afford to see her. Suddenly, you feel a wonderful rush of self-awareness blanket everyone in the audience, both males and females -- husbands and wives. This aside, like the one that opens the play, is really more dramatic than anything else that happens on stage.

The Escort plays at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through May 8.

For info on the show text the word "curtain" to 69866 and join the conversation at KCRW.com/theater.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.


Banner image of Maggie Siff and James Eckhouse in the world premiere of Jane Anderson's The Escort: Michael Lamont

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