By Mark O’Halloran; Directed by Tom Creed
Produced by THISISPOPBABY
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 3.11.23
Irish Arts Center, 726 11th Avenue
by Shani R. Friedman on 3.8.23
Fionn Ó Loingsigh and Kate Stanley Brennan in Conversations After Sex. Photo by Emon Hassan.
BOTTOM LINE: A moving, funny, erotic and hopeful look at intimacy, grief and connection.
Playwright Mark O'Halloran doesn't waste any time in setting the scene or mood: we get right to the sex, or rather, the naked, immediate aftermath and the somewhat awkward exchange that follows a first encounter between two anonymous strangers. There's little to the set except for a giant bed, prominently displayed. A woman "She" (Kate Stanley Brennan) and man "A" (Fionn Ó Loingsigh) have picked each other up for a holiday afternoon in a hotel. She is unsteady; not wanting to be by herself but also desperate to have a cry, she offers another go. She tells him he's "sweet" and "sexy," watching as he, anxious to leave, tries to find his underwear. When he tells her he thinks she's also sexy, she argues, calling herself as "mental."
Over the course of a year, this unnamed woman has sex and post-coital discussions with ten men (A through J, all played by Ó Loingsigh). Each man reveals something: sometimes it's terrible, like the guy who witnessed a friend assault a stripper at a bachelor party, and other times it's gentle, such as when E—another man she has a rapport with—shares that his mother is dying, and cries a little as she holds his hand. Soon enough, She and A are together again, this time having an early morning talk in the house she inherited from her father. She notes that this time, "I didn't cry." Man A later tells her about a break-up and that She has been on his mind. He bursts into tears.
There's little pretense between her and the men, which is likely what makes honesty between them so easy. But there's also an edge to her meetings with A, whose coldness, she tells him, reminds her of someone. Gradually, She reveals to one of the men that she's been in freefall after her last relationship. Ever since, she has largely dropped out of society, not sleeping, working or seeing her sister (Clelia Murphy) and nephews. She's let her friendships mostly fall away too; all she can manage is "drink and noise. Strangers around me."
O'Halloran and director Tom Reed have crafted wrenching, thought-provoking, and lovely moments in the brief run-time of Conversations After Sex. There is the knife-edge that She navigates as she attempts to find her place after traumatic events, the catharsis that She and some of the men experience, and the glimmers of trust and peace She is able to feel. It's truly rare to see grief and depression given such extensive attention and I applaud Brennan, Ó Loingsigh and O'Holloran for exploring this. Brennan is raw and mesmerizing. Ó Loingsigh has the tougher task of playing so many parts, but his vulnerability and openness are keenly felt. Both are unabashed in expressing intense emotions.
My main criticism is that it isn't always clear who She is interacting with, from one scene to the next, especially since she meets some men more than once. Sarah Bacon's costume design doesn't change much from one man to the next, so without a script in hand, it may not be clear that Ó Loingsigh portrays as many distinctive roles as he does. Indeed, Conversations After Sex may have been just as effective and affecting if O'Halloran had tightened up the number of men and their back stories. I'm still marinating on whether it matters who is there at the end with her, or if that's less important than where She lands.
This was my first show since the Irish Arts Center opened their gorgeous new space earlier in the pandemic. Cheers to the IAC, and it's great to be back!
(Conversations After Sex plays at the Irish Arts Center, 726 11th Avenue (at 51st Street), through March 11, 2023. The running time is 90 minutes, no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30; Thursdays and Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2. Masks required for matinees. Tickets are $25 - $65. For tickets and more information call 888-616-0274 or visit irishartscenter.org.)
Conversations After Sex is by Mark O’Halloran. Directed by Tom Creed. Set and Costume Design by Sarah Bacon. Lighting Design by Sarah Jane Shiels. Music Composition by Emma O’Halloran. Sound Design by Ivan Birthistle. Movement and Intimacy Director is Sue Mythen. Stage Manager is Olivia Drennan.
The cast is Kate Stanley Brennan, Fionn Ó Loingsigh, and Clelia Murphy.