I discovered a terrific new play last weekend. It’s called Turtleneck and its author is Brandon Crone, a National Theatre School acting grad who runs a theatre company called Safeword, the mandate of which is, in part, “to facilitate, through the medium of theatre, a forum of philosophical discussion and critical thought surrounding issues that are relevant to modern society.”
Remarkably, Turtleneck does that. And it deserves way more notice than it’s gotten.
Full disclosure: a play of mine was just shortlisted for Crone’s Safe Words playwriting contest and will have a public reading through his company in May. Toronto is a village, and Toronto theatre is a thimble; such overlap’s inevitable. But I don’t think my contest luck predisposed me to love Turtleneck, of which I saw an archival video screening (of the premiere production from February 2013) and then read the script. Actually, for the first scene of the play I thought I’d hate it.
Turtleneck develops into one of the more profound studies of sex and gender in contemporary Western culture that I’ve seen onstage, but it starts as a lot of noise. We meet a brother and sister who are at each other’s throats. He’s a slacker; she’s fed up. She wants to cut him out of her life. In Crone’s production the scene was played at a tornado pitch, which seems to amp the stakes, but the situation doesn’t feel credible. It feels more governed by style, a profanity-laced style like Neil LaBute’s, than by an emotional reality.
But then the play finds its level. It turns its focus to Vicky, a former porn star who’s ditched her debauched situation to try to make a new life for herself.
One of the subtlest articulations of a feminist ethic that I’ve ever seen in the theatre, Turtleneck presents a woman who has a full awareness of her sexual power—and its capacity to move and transform her—but feels the need to run away from it when, again and again, men try to take ownership of it for their own purposes.
Capitalism likes to reduce sex to a banality. Sex as social reward, sex as wisecrack, sex as confirmation of the marital unit. Sex as unruly transformative power—this isn’t helpful for our civilization, which relies on predictable, orderly behavior for its survival. Sex as a force for the fulfillment of the potential of the whole human person, sex as energy that, when misdirected, grows toxic—our society has no mainstream apparatus for dealing with this. Psychoanalysis can approach it on a case-by-case basis. Religion can show us monuments of which it’s the shadow. But the only arena where we can really talk about sexuality as it is, where we can grant it its native power to shape the political and reach the sacred, is art.
So says Roy, Vicky’s porn producer/manager, of her X-rated days. And he’s right. She found a power in transgression. She claimed a part of herself that was wilder, freer than she’d imagined possible. But it was always structured and limited by men like Roy.
The men of Turtleneck are a coterie of dysfunction, a gallery of masculinities that don’t know how to express themselves and have gone haywire. There’s Brian, a fan whose fascination with Vicky is obsessive and entitled. He stalks her, feels that his infatuation confers an exceptional status on itself, is necessary and true because he feels it. There’s Louis, a man Vicky tries to date, a porn addict, whose intense fantasy life has crippled him with anxiety and made him unable to perform with a non-virtual woman.
Neither of these men has any vocational drive. Neither is doing much with his life. Brian lazes in a parent-funded apartment all day and masturbates. Louis volunteers for a porn addiction counseling service and licks his wounds. They’re both unable to relate to women in a positive way. Their sexual energy has no outlet. Trapped, stagnant, it renders them dangerous on the one hand and useless on the other.
It’s not tentative, ostensibly respectful Louis but Roy, the aggressive porn producer, who comes across as the most grounded man in Turtleneck. Roy is violent and controlling, spouts misogynist pearls about how Vicky is his “property,” but he’s also the only man in the play who’s capable of empathy. He’s the only man able to see Vicky as a soulful, complex individual. He grasps her power. He’s a little bit in awe of it. He has the desperation, the tender relinquishing, of a man in love. He seems actually to want the best for her, wants her to be free, to be all of herself. But he wants her to do it on his terms.
Turtleneck’s tragic turn is that Vicky, confronted by the many strident desires of the men around her, can think of only one way out: she’ll use her sex to satisfy their claims. She doesn’t quite mind. She likes sex. She doesn’t necessarily dislike the men. But her situation reduces her sexuality to a tool, a way to neutralize danger and discomfort. Sex becomes pragmatic. It ceases to be, as we understand it once was for Vicky, a source of her own freedom and fulfillment. And yet in potential it remains that too. Sex becomes again, as perhaps it always is, a tragic knot.
This is the landscape in which Turtleneck moves. It’s an ambitious play. At its best, it feels like Dostoevsky, a dramatic meditation on a spiritual hunger that seeks and fails to find a tenable expression. It’s not always successful as drama; its beginning, as I mentioned, feels shallow, and its characters’ voices and sweary vocabularies don’t always sound distinct from each other, and it features a character, Darcy the social worker, who struck me as extraneous and whose late reappearance turns the proceedings briefly into trivial farce.
But it’s one of the only pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a while that, in complex emotional and dramatic terms, engages with an essential question of the way we live together now. It’s one of the only plays I’ve seen in Toronto that grants to sexuality its true ambiguity and power.
Turtleneck isn’t onstage anymore, but I’ll sure keep an eye out for whatever Brandon Crone writes next.