"A man goes home and masturbates his typical fantasy. A woman on her knees, a woman tied up, a woman abused," wrote future U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in the alternative newspaper Vermont Freeman in 1972. "A woman enjoys intercourse with her man—as she fantasizes being raped by three men simultaneously."
Sanders has since disavowed his lurid article, which appeared to compare violent sexual fantasies to actual sexual violence. Yet his words wouldn't be out of place in Paula Vogel's 1994 play Hot 'N' Throbbing, which is a profoundly conflicted exploration of the intersection between fantasy and reality that has been revivified as an audio play by Profile Theatre.
Like Vogel's How I Learned to Drive—the story of a girl and her pedophile uncle—Hot 'N' Throbbing is darkly funny until it's downright horrifying. Throbbing doesn't execute that transition as seamlessly as Drive, but Profile has recruited a cast and crew that amplify the play's best quality—its savage sense of humor.
The first character we meet in Hot 'N' Throbbing, which was directed by Jamie M. Rea, is V.O. (Eleanor O'Brien), who seems to be the inner monologue of Charlene (Ayanna Berkshire), a writer for Gyno Productions, a company that makes feminism-friendly erotic films. Charlene has two teenage children, Leslie Ann (Treasure Lunan) and Calvin (Zak Westfall), and Vogel revels in the awkwardly hilarious spectacle of Charlene pursuing a career in erotica while raising two kids in the throes of their respective sexual awakenings.
If Hot 'N' Throbbing kept its gaze focused on Charlene, Leslie Ann and Calvin, it might have entered the upper echelon of Vogel's résumé. What keeps it from ascending is the unwelcome arrival of Charlene's ex-husband Clyde (Bobby Bermea), whose initial haplessness (a scene where Charlene shoots him in the backside is partly played for laughs) masks the violence and insecurity festering in his psyche.
Clyde initially seems like a satirical figure from Charlene's fantasies ("I got a package for you, Charlene!" he announces suggestively). When you start to fully understand that he is a genuine physical threat, you feel both horrified and dazed. It's disorienting to see a play that makes light of off-color material, like Calvin inventing a story about his sister moonlighting as a pole dancer, transform into a serious study of domestic violence.
Hot 'N' Throbbing concludes with a brutal act that makes you glance back at a scene that features a description of a sexual fantasy that involves being tied up and hurt. While the play rightly reminds us that one person's dream is another person's very real nightmare, the journey from kinky imaginings to Clyde's crimes is jarring enough to make you wonder what the play is trying to say.
Is Vogel telling her audience that it's irresponsible to dabble in porn or sadomasochism while real-life abuse exists? Maybe not, but Hot 'N' Throbbing is jumbled enough that some listeners may wonder if the play is using an arguably false equivalency to police the private thoughts of its characters (and its audience).
Debates about whether Hot 'N' Throbbing is sex-positive are likely to be long and thorny. The performances promise to be considerably less controversial—especially O'Brien's portrayal of V.O. She delivers lines, such as "She was hot, she was throbbing, but she was in control," with majestic glee, speaking to the beat of a percussive tune that sounds like elevator music from an adult video store—in a good way.
While the performances are superior to the play, audiences shouldn't dismiss Vogel's creation. Hot 'N' Throbbing is the third Paula Vogel play Profile has produced since the start of its two seasons devoted to the works of Vogel, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Lynn Nottage. The first was The Baltimore Waltz, Vogel's zany and heartfelt tribute to her brother, who died of AIDS; the second was Indecent, a cheeky and poignant backstage drama.
Together, The Baltimore Waltz, Indecent and Hot 'N' Throbbing offer a portrait of an artist whose boldness mesmerizes, even when it results in a miss. If Throbbing were an explosive device, it would be an IED—an assemblage of disparate parts that strikes with propulsive force. The blast may be messy, but there's something irresistible about stumbling through its wake, trying to make sense of what you've just seen.
LISTEN: Hot 'N' Throbbing streams at profiletheatre.org through June 20, 2021. A 24-hour rental costs $5-$40.