By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Soliciting Temptation hands us a snapshot of a situation earmarked for our disapproval.
Fretful middle-aged white guy in a grubby hotel room in a Third World city: He’s pacing, drinking whiskey, getting sweaty, fiddling with the air conditioner, phoning the front desk to complain it doesn’t work.
Clearly Man (as he’s identified in the program) is not waiting for Godot or room service. And the arrival at his door of Woman, beautiful, exotic, young — “how old did you say you were?” — confirms it.
The odd 2014 two-hander by Erin Shields (If We Were Birds), a collaboration between Shadow Theatre and Calgary’s Sage Theatre, sets out to talk about, if not explore, child-sex tourism. It’s a dark, serious subject. But it’s not exactly a provocative one since it would be awfully hard to dredge up much resistance in a theatre audience to the idea that child prostitution and child-sex tourists are bad.
So Soliciting Temptation has its work cut out for it making viable drama where there’s no real argument or moral uncertainty. Instead, the play diverts itself into a series of revelations about the characters we meet. And it’s tricky to tell you very much about the way Soliciting Temptation unfolds, since there are surprise reversals in the dynamic between the two characters.
Since Woman is shy and silent at the outset, Man does all the talking, a monologue in halting, nervous fits, starts and tangents that Mattie Overall negotiates expertly, even when he has to say things like “you can see I’m a man to be admired”.
When Woman abruptly starts to undress he is disconcerted. When she finally speaks, amazingly it’s perfect English, delivered fiercely by Patricia Cerra. He gets an angry earful — about his moral failure, the evils of prostitution, the hypocrisy of those who use the economic argument. “You’re a disgusting old perv,” she says. “And I have the power to effect change.” Who talks like this? I hear you ask. The challenge of the play is to create enough successive reveals that you stick with the possible answers.
Anyhow, what follows is an “argument” in which the woman chastises the man in no uncertain terms and he weakly tries to justify himself. “I’ve never done this before,” he stammers. “Yet here we are,” she says with a sardonic sneer that is a keynote of the character.
What started out as a paid sexual encounter has turned into a sting. She threatens exposure to his wife, his daughter, his business; he pleads pathetically, and she calls him on it.
Anyhow, there are more reveals, doled out carefully if not persuasively. But what we have is a two-hander classic: two people in a room “arguing” — about white liberal guilt, first world privilege, economic disparity, choice, parental responsibility, euphemistic language — and changing who has the upper hand. This they do in terms that don’t exactly smack of real life. Soliciting Temptation hasn’t succumbed to the theatrical temptation of convincing dialogue.
Which means that much is demanded of the actors in Jason Mehmel’s production. Both are excellent, though not entirely successful at camouflaging the impression that Soliciting Temptation belongs to the playwright, not to the characters. Overall manages the texture of the businessman’s confusion and guilt, advances and retreats, with real dexterity. Cerra, a resourceful young actor, has the challenge of sustaining the sardonic attack mode, while hinting of secret sorrows beneath.
Nothing much can be done about the ending, though, in which the play changes tack yet again, this time floating the idea of sex as gender politics. Soliciting Temptation flashes its provocations, but doesn’t really deliver on them.
Written by: Erin Shields
Directed by: Jason Mehmel
Starring: Mattie Overall, Patricia Cerra
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: through March 26
Tickets: 780-434-5564, TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca)