Laura Campbell in THE SURRENDER.
NOTE: X-rated content in a show sometimes means X-rated content in a review. Consider yourself advised.
BOTTOM LINE: This stage adaptation of Toni Bentley's erotic memoir is highly engaging due in part to the provocative material and a strong performance by Laura Campbell.
“I once loved a man so much I forgot that I existed,” begins the one-woman show The Surrender, which is based upon Toni Bentley’s erotic memoir and was adapted for the stage by the author. What follows is the story of one woman looking for sexual satisfaction and experimenting any way she can until she finds it, which turns out to be through a dominating man with a love for anal sex. (Although the character in the play is based on Bentley she is never given a name in the script.) Despite opening with the word “love,” there seems to be very little of it in the play, rather it seems to be the story of a woman experimenting sexually until she finds pleasure within her own flesh; emotions seems to be a minor forethought. The resulting story is a mix of Sex and the City and Fifty Shades of Grey with a generous helping of Anais Nin (as her pontifications on sex are a bit more gritty and a bit more specific than anything Carrie Bradshaw had to say). Then actress Laura Campbell gets to the line, “His was first. In my ass. I don’t know the exact length, but it’s definitely too big. Just right. Of medium width, neither too slender nor too thick. Beautiful.” Through these foreshadowing words we soon learn that this play is not just about sex, it is about a very particular type of sex. Then just in case you didn’t catch the allusion, the unnamed woman becomes more specific with the lines “Anal sex is, for me, a literary event. The words first started flowing while he was actually buried deep in my ass.” This line made the audience (during the performance I attended) a bit uncomfortable, with audible giggles and nervous shifting in seats as the script becomes increasingly graphic.
The woman discusses how her interest in sadomasochism first began during her training as a ballerina (both Bentley and the character in her play were professional ballerinas) when her feet would ache in her toe shoes. As a young ballerina she falls in love with the rituals of Catholicism, despite her atheism, and identifies with the pain the saints endure to gain sainthood. After suffering through a marriage that is said to have love but not lust she shies away from monogamy noting, “I learned that awful truth that monogamy denies: fidelity will, sooner or later, render Casanova’s cane limp and Cleopatra’s Nile dry.”
While some of the play’s lines are cringe-worthy and laughable, actor Campbell and director Zishan Ugurlu manage to make the material sound as genuine and heartfelt as possible. Anyone who can utter the line, “With him between my legs I started to imagine myself as a mythic Goddess coming for all womankind...and when I came, I wept for those without,” with total sincerity clearly has a lot of ability as an actor (and most likely the guidance of a skilled director).
In one particularly laughable scene the woman pulls out a large diagram of the human digestive system and begins to explain the specific physical sensations and psychological associations that are part of the experience of anal sex. Although Campbell performs straight-faced, the line between humor and serious contemplation seems unclear.
One thing missing from The Surrender is an analysis of the emotions that are connected to the people who are carrying out the sexual acts. The man that provides the woman with the sexual pleasure seems to have little identity. While this is a refreshing change as most male narratives about sexual exploits give the female characters little identity, it lessens the power of the sexual intercourse described. The man seems to be nothing more than a body, and at times nothing more than a disembodied penis that gives the woman mind-altering pleasure. When the woman leaves her lover as she finds that he is sleeping with another woman who is suffering, her pain does not seem clear as she seemed to have little attachment to the man in the first place. Since the novel The Surrender received critical acclaim when it was published in 2004, I am guessing that Bentley provides a deeper analysis of the sexual relationship between the woman and her lover in the original work than the play lets on. Adding some of that into the play might make the story stronger. However, the central message of the work is made clear when the woman pulls her hair out of her bun, opens her silk robe, and lays back on the chaise lounge with a sigh of pure ecstasy. She is proud to have finally opened herself up enough to find the sexual fulfillment she so dearly wanted, and she will embrace it no matter how much anyone judges her. It is then we glimpse the “ass” that we have heard so much about, something that the woman now proudly declares as her own place, not that of the man’s.
The sexually gritty tone of The Surrender is a well communicated one thanks in part to many of the finishing touches, including an opening with Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to The End of Love” (a song Bentley herself wrote into the script), the fitting changes in lighting, and the effective use of sound (thanks to designer Palmer Hefferan). The red colors present in the set and lighting are evocative of the specific tone of the story. Laura Campbell shows an incredible amount of talent as she is able to not only keep a solo show engaging, but also tackle and deliver such difficult and explicit lines. A woman describing her sexual “liberation” is surely not such a new phenomenon to see on stage. However, the specific discussions present in this script and its feeling of authenticity due to it being adapted from one’s real life experiences make it stand out from other works that have explored similar realms.
(The Surrender plays at The Clurman Theater, Theatre Row 410 West 46th Street, February 2, 2014. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7PM; Fridays at 8PM; Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM; and Sundays at 3PM. Tickets are $45 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200.)