If you go see Sarah Jones' one woman show "Sell/Buy/Date" at the Geffen Playhouse, I'll bet you that someone in the seats near whispers during the show "wow, she's good." It's that kind of performance: one designed to elicit appreciation for its technique and virtuosity.
Over the course of the show’s 80 minutes, Ms. Jones transforms her voice into everything from a british professor, to a jewish woman looking for her schmata, to a russian pimp. As a mimic, she's incredible.
It brings to mind the performances of Danny Hoch or Anna Deavere Smith and you can feel the weight of their work on Ms. Jones.
The short description of the show might run something like "Ms. Jones gives voice to women caught up in the sex industry and the men who put them there."
Sounds edgy, right?
While the topic seems daring, the show goes to great lengths to avoid confronting the audience - starting with a framing device that places the show in a distant, safe future. The conceit is that Ms. Jones narrator character is lecturing us in the future. We're students in some sort of survey course of attitudes towards prostitution in the early 21st century. Each of the characters we're going to witness is a sort of 3 dimensional powerpoint slide in her lecture: examples of how people thought back then. So our narrator introduces the character we're about to hear from and then suddenly becomes that character.
That part, again, is stunning. Ms. Jones nails the characterizations and is supported by a remarkable set of designers who give the production real shape.
The trouble is, once the awe wears off, once you've seen a handful of impersonations, you start asking what does this all add up to?
While it's a clever way to link together each bit - the lecture has the effect of letting the audience off the hook. On the one hand, Ms. Jones seems to want us to see how pervasive, profound, and deleterious the culture of prostitution is. It feels like a timely confrontation connecting everything from #metoo to Stormy Daniels into a challenge to our culture.
And then she sets it at a safe remove ... as if to say, don't worry too much about this. Society and technology will sort all this out.
Where Danny Hoch's work had a gritty edge introducing us to both a hip-hop aesthetic and a set of voices we'd never heard in the mainstream theater; and where Anna Deavere Smith's work weaves actual interviews into moving polemics; Ms. Jones seems to be inspired by their political subject matter but in an approachable way.
It almost feels like you could put a sign in the lobby: "the following production will not threaten or directly emotionally challenge a regional theater audience."
That's a shame . . . but probably a commercially sound decision.
It's telling that Ms. Jones returns to the stage for her curtain call, wearing a piece of her merch from the show: a t-shirt you can purchase in the lobby.
Everybody has a hustle.
"Sell/Buy/Date" plays at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through April 15th.
For info on the show and to subscribe to the weekly KCRW theater newsletter, check out: kcrw.com/theater.