The most charitable way of viewing Christopher Durang's "Sex and Longing" is that it is about friendship. I am not referring to the play itself, an adolescent attack on the Christian Right. I am trying to explain why anything so amateurish was produced or why it stars Sigourney Weaver. Had the play arrived at the offices of Lincoln Center Theater from an unknown author, I'm sure it would have been returned with a standard rejection form. This is Durang's first play in nine years. Since much of his earlier work was done at Playwrights Horizons, whose former artistic director, Andre Bishop, now runs Lincoln Center Theater, it was logical that the play would be received sympathetically there. As it happens, "Sex and Longing" echoes some of his other plays, especially "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You," an attack on nuns. What began as spoof turned dark when Sister Mary Ignatius murdered her students, a sophomoric turn of plot. "Sex and Longing" is not much more sophisticated. Lulu, who needs sex every 15 minutes, talks about it ceaselessly to her gay roommate Justin, who only requires it every three hours. Lulu meets a sicko, who slashes the muscles of her arms while raping her. She is saved by a lascivious minister, who tries to cure her of her sex addiction, then takes advantage of her. He is aided by the viciously puritanical wife of a sleazy politician Lulu wouldn't sleep with because she refuses to take money. The politician becomes President and his wife railroads 25 amendments through Congress to clean up America, bringing Jesus in to lobby for her. A case can be made for producing plays to encourage writers to keep going. An equally good case can be made for urging them to keep something like this in a drawer. A middle ground might have been to mount it simply and quietly. This grandiose production only magnifies the play's weaknesses. As for Weaver, she has been performing with Durang since they were at Yale. Her participation seems a touching gesture of loyalty. Wisely, she dyed her hair blond and cut it so that she is almost unrecognizable. Under Garland Wright's direction, the actors handle their caricature roles well. Dana Ivey stands out as the busybody reformer. But she cannot relieve the tedium of a skit stretched to three acts.
Just as there is no pleasure in the theater quite so keen as the unexpected, so, on much the other side of the token, there is no disappointment in the theater quite so sharp as the unaccountable.
Few plays will have been so eagerly awaited this season - at least speaking for myself - as the Lincoln Center Theater's production of Christopher Durang's "Sex and Longing," which opened last night at the Cort Theater.
I went expecting a good time, I tried hard to have a good time, but expectations and effort all went for naught as the play's occasionally good and often ambitious comic ideas deflated like a punctured life-belt in a stormy sea.
Why the hopes? Well, Durang has proved himself a fine comic writer - especially, and this might be the rub, in shorter pieces - and his realignment with Sigourney Weaver, herself on leave from all that 'Alien' corn, seemed a ripe cause for celebration. We should not have anticipated.
It seems that Durang's idea was to re-invent, or if you prefer it, revamp, the disturbing sex-goddess Lulu, devised first by Franz Wedekind, and later made into the heroine of an Alban Berg opera and "Pandora's Box," a silent movie by G. W. Pabst, starring Louise Brooks.
But unlike Destry, Lulu doesn't ride again. In the shade of an oddly blowsy-looking Weaver, she scarcely gets onto the horse.
Durang has envisaged his new look Lulu as a Washington lady, with a gay roommate, whom she met in a 12-step program for sexual compulsives. Obviously uncured - they evidently needed at least a luckier 13 steps - Lulu still needs sex every 15 minutes, even though the less rampant Justin can actually go three hours without satisfaction.
The two of them produce a coffee-table book describing their last 300 sexual encounters, which gets them, particularly Lulu, involved with the Religious Right and politics. So far as Durang is concerned, involved is not the word...fatally entangled would be closer.
It appears that Durang is trying to equate the longing for sex (its spirituality, if you like) with something of the spirituality of the out-of-body religious experience. It is perhaps an idea not that remote from Wedekind, and it's not bad. But it's also not funny.
In an attempt to make it funny Durang starts to lambaste the Religious Right with chillingly humorless vigor. Some of it - especially one character, the Catholic wife of a libidinous Senator, brilliantly played by Dana Ivey at her most acidly caustic - has its moments. After all, Durang can write comedy.
But most of it is dragged down to a tediously skittish level, irreversibly apparent first in a tea party that seems a pastiche of Shaw's "Pygmalion," and which hits its nadir when the Senator becomes a goofy President and the whole play slides inelegantly down the toilet.
Ivey has the best of the night, but Weaver does as well as she could with the material, and Guy Boyd is effective enough as the bibulous, blustering, henpecked Senator.
The staging by Garland Wright seems as uncertain as the play itself - and perhaps he should just have sat down with Durang and gotten him to sort out his ideas on paper before attempting to sort them out on stage.
Is there a Croix de Guerre for actors? If so, it should be pinned immediately on Sigourney Weaver, who is performing breath-stopping deeds of bravery at the Cort Theater, where Christopher Durang's unfortunate ''Sex and Longing'' opened last night.
Clad only in a satin slip and flimsy robe, Ms. Weaver heroically confronts terrors her monster-battling character in the ''Alien'' movie series could never have imagined. It's one thing to take on repulsive space creatures that tear through people's stomachs. It's another thing altogether, though, to face down a Broadway audience, alone and half-naked, as a woman begging for sex in any form, with no discernible affinity for the role you've been asked to play.
Never mind that Ms. Weaver -- an actress with an effortlessly electric stage presence and a sense of dignity to match -- is reduced to declaiming carnal demands and ''oohs'' and ''aahs'' of desire as though they were phonetics exercises. As Lulu, the insatiable sex addict she portrays, might put it, it's whatever gets you through the night.
A very long night it is, too. This three-act story of two sexually compulsive roommates who become martyrs to the religious right offers only faint flashes of the acid, absurdist wit and demented comic logic that has made Mr. Durang our closest answer to Oscar Wilde.
Indeed, one may be led to wonder if there isn't a Christopher Durang impostor at large. It is as if the entire script had been assembled from a Do-Your-Own-Durang kit, so many are the recycled elements from previous works. And that's not even counting Ms. Weaver's unwitting evocation of ''An Actor's Nightmare,'' Mr. Durang's hilarious one-acter with a self-explanatory name.
The savage, twisted theology of the title character in ''Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You,'' the scathing 1979 exercise in homicidal catechism, now spews from the mouths of Bridget McCrea (the unbeatable Dana Ivey), the bossy Roman Catholic wife of a Senator, and the Reverend Davidson (Peter Michael Goetz), her companion in crucifix-waving and liberal-bashing.
Just as ''Laughing Wild'' (1987) featured a memorable appearance by the Infant of Prague, so does ''Sex and Longing'' introduce Jesus (Eric Thal) as the surprise star witness at a Senate subcommittee hearing.
The spurious psychobabble Mr. Durang skewered in ''Beyond Therapy'' (1981) is also echoed, as is the playwright's penchant for a, er, catholic melding of cultural references. (Ms. Weaver's character has two names: Lulu Dubois, in homage to both Wedekind's Lulu and Williams's Blanche, and Sadie Thompson, after W. Somerset Maugham's trollop.)
Even the central joke of numerically breaking down an Olympian promiscuity -- Lulu requires sex every 15 minutes; her roommate, Justin (Jay Goede), needs it every three hours -- dates back at least to ''Sister Mary.'' And Mr. Durang continues to ask those pained, big questions about horrific suffering in a random universe.
What's notably missing is the essential, life-giving connection between humor and fear that usually transports this playwright's work beyond the arena of easy satire. Like Ms. Weaver in the comedy's excruciating first act, he seems peculiarly detached from his material, stirring ingredients together like a tired chef with a well-worn recipe.
The more atypical, pointedly political elements here, like the portrayal of the Senator (Guy Boyd) as a randy lout who doesn't even bother to disguise his hypocrisy, seem as listlessly pro forma as the same material in such current (and equally unsatisfying) works as Theresa Rebeck's ''View of the Dome'' and Douglas McGrath's ''Political Animal.'' And the obscene language and sexual explicitness seem designed only to shock, in the manner of an angry, attention-craving child.
The first in Lincoln Center's series of new American plays this season, ''Sex and Longing,'' directed by Garland Wright, has been given a notably handsome production. John Arnone's set offers cosmic glimpses of Elysian skies behind the sordid politics of the play's everyday world, and there are a couple of winning sight gags involving inflatable dolls.
Mostly, though, Mr. Wright's direction and, with one exception, the performances seem to proceed on automatic pilot. Ms. Weaver (who looks great, by the way) can admittedly still hold a stage, even performing at low level, and she achieves some inspired comic business in the play's second act by simply looking helplessly into a tea cup.
But the evening's real star is Ms. Ivey, who brings a radioactive comic energy to her appealingly loathsome character. In Ms. Ivey's dexterous hands, the tyrannical, child-warping Bridget, who rides over her philosophical contradictions like a steamroller in high gear, comes to suggest a contemporary equivalent to Wilde's Lady Bracknell.
Just listen to the way she violently pronounces the name of Harriet Levin, her one Jewish friend, or her imperious descriptions of her grown-up children. (''Two of them turned out beautifully,'' she says. ''They cower when I enter the room.'') Watch her frozen, ecstatic smile when Jesus arrives to testify against pornography. If Ms. Weaver deserves the Croix de Guerre, Ms. Ivey deserves the Tony.
With Ms. Ivey setting the tone, the centerpiece of the second act, in which Bridget tries to teach Lulu the art of social conversation (shades of ''Pygmalion''), reminds us of how funny Mr. Durang can be.
Unfortunately, Mr. Durang tends to retreat before adverse criticism like a groundhog who has seen its shadow. This is his first full-length work since ''Laughing Wild,'' and it is to be hoped (ardently) that we don't have to wait another decade for the next effort of this prodigiously gifted and influential writer.
Perhaps this messy, mechanical play is the cathartic product of breaking through writer's block. One questions the judiciousness of even producing ''Sex and Longing.'' But if it paves the way for fresher and more fluid works from Mr. Durang, it will actually have been worth it.
If only the body parts of Christopher Durang's new play fit together as naturally as sex does with longing. A lampoon so broad, so obvious, yet laced with pitch-dark flourishes that suggest a play that might have been, "Sex and Longing" is a full-out, no-excuses blitzkrieg on the religious right and moral guardianship that surrenders two of the playwright's most lethal weapons sophistication and nuance in the service of righteous indignation. Even Durang's estimable sense of humor makes the casualty list, done in by lewd inflatable dolls and Christ-like visitations. Sigourney Weaver's risky lead performance is going to charm some, alienate others and do both to most, leaving "Sex and Longing" languishing in foreplay and disappointing in climax.
"Oh, sex and longing, sex and longing," chants a breathless Lulu (Weaver), a nymphomaniac who requires a quickie fix every 20 minutes and wards off disturbing memories of some past trauma by scrunching her face and forcing the emerging disturbances back to the darkest recesses of her mind. Played with a buoyancy that recalls the blithe heroines of screwball comedy, the slip-clad Lulu, who has changed her name from the too-telling Sadie Thompson, enjoys her compulsion and breezily dismisses any troublesome side effects with the same nonchalance Scarlett O'Hara put problems off until tomorrow.
Of course, Durang wants us to know that Lulu's plight is anything but airy. Lulu's "Exorcist"-like obscenities and take-me come-ons are a '90s extension of Blanche DuBois' dependence on the kindness of strangers. (Lulu even shares a last name with her theatrical ancestor.) Her emptiness makes her the perfect target for madmen of all stripes, from a sadistic serial killer with a penchant for dismembering prostitutes to a sex-obsessed preacher so determined to clean up New York that he petitions the city fathers to pass a zoning ordinance against Lulu.
The Rev. Davidson (Peter Michael Goetz) soon teams up with Bridget McCrea (Dana Ivey), a senator's wife so prudish she believes in the death penalty for certain musicvideos and vomits in response to dirty jokes. "I long for morality, " she laments, her rectitude unleavened by any hint of tolerance, despite (or because of) the fact that she's lost her oldest son to AIDS. "Pass laws. Lots of laws," is her all-purpose solution (delivered by Ivey, as most of her dialogue, with a delicious, crowd-pleasing humor that won't be apparent in printed transcription).
Rounding out Durang's modern fable is Justin (Jay Goede), Lulu's gay roommate and fellow compulsive (though he requires sex only once every three hours "I have other interests," he explains), and Sen. Harry McCrea (Guy Boyd), a spineless drunk and whoremonger used by his wife and the reverend to initiate anti-obscenity hearings. Chief target of the investigation: the authors of "Explicit Photographs of the Last 300 People We Slept With," a genitalia-filled coffee-table book with an introduction by Camille Paglia. The authors, of course , are Lulu and Justin.
But long before he gets to the Senate hearing, Durang puts both Lulu and his audience through any number of increasingly gruesome tribulations. After submitting herself to one (thankfully offstage) gang bang, Lulu tells Justin, "I passed out for some of it, from ecstasy I guess. Or pain." Later, when she hooks up with a ripper named Jack (Eric Thal), the play turns darker still: "I'm not here, I'm not here," she screams as the knife-wielding sadist brutally severs the muscles in her arms. She's saved by the reverend, who takes her home and instructs her in the ways of the Lord and proper living. Oh, and occasionally he rapes her.
That Durang can mine any laughs at all from such perversity is a testament to the talent that found better expression in "The Marriage of Bette and Boo" and "Laughing Wild." Even here, when he hits his stride, the humor, however cartoonish, can dazzle. Attempting to teach a partially paralyzed Lulu the finer points of polite conversation, the nasty senator's wife gets mired in her own bigotry and hate, the conversation hilariously devolving into equal parts pettiness and fascism.
Such moments of promise, along with the dark hints of Lulu's repressed memory , give way to a third act that all but sinks any faith we may cling to for "Sex and Longing." Durang, assisted by director Garland Wright, abandons any restraint and presents the senate hearings with the ham-fisted approach of a college revue. Jesus Christ even drops by for a visit.
Durang doesn't go so far as to expect us to believe in divine intervention, and the Christ impostor has dire consequences for Lulu (not to mention the play itself, being the most outlandish development in a progression of silliness). And what to make of characters so broadly drawn that to call them stereotypes would be an understatement the drunken senator, the prudish wife, the lecherous preacher? Surely Durang is winking at us through the cliches, but to what end?
Or has Durang simply decided that desperate times render a more subtle approach obsolete? If so, he's mistaken. "Sex and Longing" reveals precious little beyond which side of the political fence its author inhabits. There are intriguing bits of theater, but even a bent for the fantastical accomplishes little more than putting Tony Kushner alongside Tennessee Williams in Durang's pantheon of homage-inspirers.
Although the cast generally does what's expected, only Ivey, as the moralizing prig, hands in a gem. Others in the cast, Weaver included, are as good as the script lets them be, which means very good sometimes, ineffective others. Tech credits, as always for a Lincoln Center production, are top-notch.
In recent years, Durang has turned his attention to acting roles and staging his satirical cabaret revue, and the likely reaction to "Sex and Longing" won't serve as much of a welcome back to theater. A pity. Despite his misstep here, the playwright retains a distinctive voice one that finds its way even through the indulgences of this play. "Oh, sex and longing, sex and longing," says a Lulu desperate for fulfillment. We understand, we understand.