(l to r) Kendra Wilkinson and Michael Milton in the Las Vegas production of ‘Sex Tips for Straight Women From a Gay Man.’ (Photo courtesy of the Heron Agency)
By Becky Sarwate
Fresh off recent hit runs in Las Vegas and New York City, Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man hits Chicago’s Greenhouse Theater Center like a glitter bomb after a two-year pandemic trance. Bawdy, bracing, and at times, authentically socially awkward, the production is in lockstep with the live laughter for which many COVID-scarred audiences yearn, even as we engage in a new reality where the appropriate lines for human interaction seem permanently smudged.
Hailed in press materials as a “Best Comedy for Couples,” Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man is the brainchild of playwright and producer Matt Murphy. The loosely scripted, much-improvised production is set in the auditorium of an unnamed university, where a frazzled young professor named Robyn (Emma Jo Boyden) is attempting to proctor a featured author reading. Hair tightly pulled back, horn-rimmed glasses carefully perched atop her nose, Robyn is all business as she assumes hosting duties from a recently deceased, well-respected fellow professor.
Naturally, the prospect of a college campus book reading conveys staid images of stuffy, self-serious academics, students and writers listening and nodding soberly. And Robyn is more than ready to assume the position — don’t pardon the pun. However, like an extra cheeky Saved by the Bell-era Mark-Paul Gosselaar meets boisterous K-Pop phenomenon BTS, this night’s author, Dan (the uproarious Adam Fane), has come to shake up the status quo. Rigor, be damned!
No matter one’s Kinsey Scale rating, the fictional collegiate audience merges with the actual, present one to take a big, gay ride with Dan, Robyn, and sexy A/V guy Stefan (a flawlessly sculpted Bradley Allen Meyer). For 75-minutes, broken up neatly into six segments that correspond to chapters from Dan’s celebrated book, we get ad-libbed lessons in hair tossing, hand jobs, dressing sexy (but not slutty), and the poetry of drunken flirting from a maestro we never get to know personally. Dan, as inhabited by the incredibly winsome Adam Fane, is a cipher for the impish naughtiness that lives inside us all, just waiting for the right tease to release it.
However, the bulk of the play’s segments rely on individual audience member participation, and this is where the aforementioned authentic social awkwardness becomes a factor. While the Greenhouse Theater Center maintains a proof-of-vaccination mandate, masking in one’s seat is optional. Like so many social settings encountered in the last two-plus years, it’s choose your own level of risk aversion.
This appeared to add another layer of hesitation and indecision for patrons randomly invited into the story by the show’s cast, fourth wall thoroughly smashed. It was rather like watching the many small public health decisions we’ve made for ourselves over the last two years replay at warp speed, and on occasion, the selected audience member looked to “Dan” as if he were a boisterous but wise stand-in for Dr. Fauci. Happy to follow his seemingly certain lead.
In a strange, and I assume, unanticipated manner, this reckoning of fantasy inclusion with ongoing, real-world public health concerns added an additional layer of pathos and disconnected loneliness to buttress the show’s comedy. Jokes centering around our collective, cultural inability to date, with an evolving set of rules we can’t understand? That’s timeless. But whether we can or should breathe the air or touch the hand of the hilarious maestro beckoning us into the action? That’s 2022.
Those who might balk at physically joining the cast can instead live vicariously through Robyn, who loosens progressively under Dan’s tutelage. By the drop of the proverbial curtain, she has morphed from restrained, nervous junior academic into a fully-realized sexual being ready to grab the world, and Stefan’s shapely bottom, by the skin. For those of us still acclimating to evolved social mores, alongside age-old hangups, Robyn’s abandon is hard not to envy.
But upon exiting the theater, I found myself reflecting on what must also be the double consciousness of the talented cast. In one particular scene during last Friday’s production Adam Fane, as Dan, extended his hand to a young woman who immediately rebuffed it. In the pre-COVID era, this shutdown might have invited additional, interactive, self-aware hazing. Instead, it was as if we’d agreed to an unspoken contract, pausing for a collective, surprised split second before moving on.
I have a feeling that improv theater might be forced to do this extra work for a long time to come. Kudos to Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man and its cast for taking it on with compassion and a trundle of humor.
Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man
Greenhouse Theater Center
2257 N Lincoln, Chicago
Through July 2
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic, blogger, and author of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team (Eckhartz Press). She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob, their cats, Wendy and Lisa and their dogs, RuPaul and George Michael. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.