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Off-Off-Broadway Review

Sexual Healing

Sexual Healing
Photo Source: Joshua Friewald
Writer-director Jonathan Leaf's intriguing but unfocused "Sexual Healing" seems to be a thinly veiled dramatization of the lives and work of pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia E. Johnson, authors of the groundbreaking "Human Sexual Response" and other books. The years (1959–1992) line up, as do numerous personal details. The subject is ripe for exploration, but the fictionalization of the story lends it a generic quality. Ultimately, the research and its effects on the play's supporting characters prove more interesting than the two protagonists at the drama's center.

Dr. William Munson is an obstetrician practicing out of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland (Masters and Johnson were located in St. Louis). As the play begins in 1959, he and his assistant, Desiree Novak, are working with a conservative young married couple, trying to cure the husband's impotence. It quickly becomes apparent that Munson's radical methods involve the husband having relations with a sexual surrogate, Mrs. Eleanor Dial, a startling choice in the context of this traditional Midwestern society. The premise is arresting, despite Leaf's indulging in some easy sniggering he would have been wiser to avoid.

Most of the play then takes place across the next eight years, as we watch Munson's practice—devoted to healing the sexual dysfunctions of married couples—grow, to the point that he and Novak, now married after an affair and his subsequent divorce, become national celebrities. Then a court case brought by Dial exposes exactly what goes on in Munson's office, leading to a large financial settlement and severe modification of his hands-on techniques. Success rates drop, Munson eventually pursues a younger research assistant, and the couple divorces. Novak ends alone, personally unfulfilled and convinced that their research is forgotten.

Leaf covers much of the relationship between Munson and Novak in a running omniscient narration delivered by the latter. It's a clumsy and distancing device that prevents both characters from accreting. More interesting are Dial, a former prostitute married to her former pimp, and June Baker, another sexual surrogate. What motivates them to accept such employment and how they deal with its consequences are fascinating subjects insufficiently explored. Leaf also tries to dramatize the effects on Munson and Novak of their research—Novak shoots more than 7,000 films of over 270 couples having sex—but the results seem more willed than organic.

Under Leaf's somewhat studied direction, Judith Hawking is poised and confident as Novak, delivering her yards of unengaging narration lucidly. Chuck Montgomery excels at depicting Munson's shiny professional shell but fails to reveal what's underneath. Sayra Player's Dial is a standout. Sure, it's a flashy part, but Player's vibrancy and nuance help her create the most complete character on stage.

In multiple roles, Hugh Sinclair could find greater differences between two homosexuals seeking to be "cured" but scores as a go-for-the-jugular attorney. Ren Mathewson makes the underwritten Baker interesting, but she's less successful as Novak's mentally challenged daughter, admittedly an even thinner role. Sarah Nina Hayon and Peter O'Connor do well enough as that initial married couple and in a variety of other small parts.

A program note makes the traditional assertion that similarity to actual persons is "strictly coincidental." Alas, it's not any more convincing than the play, which would probably benefit from greater fictionalizing. The material is undoubtedly more suited to a film or miniseries, but if it's going to be a play, it needs a different, more concentrated form, with a lot less talk and a lot more action.


Presented by Rattapallax and Ram Devineni at Theatre 3, 311 W. 43rd St., 3rd floor, NYC. Jan. 13–30. Wed. and Thu., 7:30 p.m.; Fri. and Sat., 8 p.m. (212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.

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