Jules Feiffer's Carnal Knowledge was written in the 1960s, made into a film starring Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel in the 1970s, and revised in the late 1980s. It may seem a bit dated today--most educated men, after all, have learned a little something from the women's movement. But Feiffer's play still flays macho sexual carnivores and the women they prey on with unblinking precision. And the Industrial Arts Theatre under Mary Guzzy-Siegel's wince-free direction gives this difficult play an intense clarity.
The story revolves around the lives of two friends, Jonathan and Sandy, beginning with their college days in 1946, when they divided the female population up into sluts and virgins, and going through their middle age and the sexual revolution, when all women are reduced to sluts in their eyes. They start out like so many eighteen-year-old men, obsessed with sex, predatory toward women and yet oddly vulnerable and tender to them, too. As nasty as they talk, both of them fall in love with the same woman, and lovely young Susan has the power to lay waste to their self-esteem.
But sleeping with two different guys who happen to be best friends can get old fast, and Susan eventually chooses Sandy, the kinder of the two men. This loss seems to embitter Jonathan against women in general; it makes you wonder if he wouldn't have gone from bad to worse if only Susan had chosen him. On the other hand, maybe he's just a stinker, because fifteen years later, when Sandy and Jonathan meet again, it's instantly clear that Jonathan's many escapades have left him loveless.
Jonathan continues down his clueless path, taking up with buxom beauty Bobbie, a sensitive but slightly dim actress who makes her living making inane commercials. He falls in love with her breasts, becomes moodily possessive and makes her quit her job so she will always be home when he needs her. The poor girl wants him to commit and marry her, but hypocrite that he is, he chafes at committing to a woman who has had so many lovers.
Sandy hasn't fared much better with Susan--their marriage has gone awry. But when Sandy and Jonathan try to swap partners, the ladies don't cooperate, and Bobbie tries to take the easy way out. In time, Sandy deludes himself into believing that he's a hippie, spouting shallow bilge and making it with a teen flower child. Jonathan's spirit freezes up completely and his sexuality twists out of control. By play's end, it's hard to tell who's the more pathetic of the two.
Philip A. Luna gives one of his best performances as the spiteful Jonathan. He eschews Nicholson's film excesses for a quiet intensity that's more human and understandable. Luna has mastered the subtle twitch of emotions across an anguished face and the slow, smoldering fire of anger and selfishness.
Kurt Lewis gives an accomplished performance as the more thoughtful and adult Sandy, though he never quite pegs the youthful-innocence bit--college kids are not babies. Amy Doe is mostly marvelous as the upper-class Susan, sweetly dishonest and not too perceptive about men. Gina Wencel makes Bobbie a tortured sex kitten reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe. But as Bobbie slowly disintegrates, Wencel tends to play the same note too long--even a twit like Bobbie has more layers than we see here. Director/performer Guzzy-Siegel brings a desperation to the aging prostitute Louise that allows her to hammer home Feiffer's final nail: what becomes of those who bury love in rage and self-concern.
Choosing this play at this time was a gutsy move by Industrial Arts. Feiffer's story isn't politically correct anymore, and it takes a kind of steely-eyed conviction to attack sexual license this way. Nudity recurs throughout Guzzy-Siegel's production, but without prurience. And each of these actors is called upon to sink to the depths of their characters' despair. It's hard not to despair with them--all this loveless, joyless sex constitutes more carnal knowledge than many of us can stand. But then, that is the point.
Carnal Knowledge, through May 18 at the New Denver Civic Theatre, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 595-3821.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.