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When it comes to assaying Mark Ravenhill's deliberately scabrous 1996 London hit Shopping and F***ing, I suspect there's no winning. A rave invites accusations — on evidence, well deserved — of pretension, a lukewarm response some suspicion of obtuseness, and outright condemnation those dread twin bogeys "closed-minded" and "homophobic."
A playwright who names his magnum opus with a word no newspaper will print is looking for means to shock. And when that play begins with a graphic display of vomiting and includes gratuitous nudity, simulations of anilingus, and copious quantities of bloodletting, sadomasochism, impenetrable dialect (and dialogue), and characters who bear little relation to life as we know it on this planet, that dramatist pushes well beyond outrage and into something very like assault.
For someone who attempts to uphold Seneca's maxim ("I am human, therefore nothing human is alien to me"), a play like this is something of an acid test for tolerance. I don't mind being disturbed by art or performance; indeed, I often relish the experience. But Ravenhill (who, astonishingly, has been compared to Joe Orton) piles on the ugliness and casual — if not downright bored — depictions of violent activity, sexual and otherwise, perpetrated by and against characters for whom we feel not the slightest empathy. His script gives every sign that its author has suckled too long at the teat of Sam Shepard and David Mamet — pretty undernourished sources to begin with.
The current production of the play by Manbites Dog Theater Company, under the direction of Jay O'Berski, is certainly arresting. His cast, especially Sarah Erickson and Amit V. Mahtaney, is game, but the play is gamier. Only the treasurable Lissa Brennan (in a role written for a male actor) manages to combine humor and profanity in a striking manner. Despite my intense aversion to the play, I suspect I'll long cherish the way Brennan expresses the phrase "attacked by a herd of wild coos."
Publicity for Shopping and F***ing includes this helpful imprecation: "Faint of heart or easily offended? Attend A Christmas Carol instead." It takes a special kind of arrogance to make a statement like that, a presumption that any yahoo philistine enough to dislike this play deserves, and can appreciate, only pap — even an audience predisposed to support the decidedly adult offerings of Manbites Dog. Judging from the number of walkouts at intermission (my own included), that snotty little caution may turn out to be less caveat than self-fulfilling prophecy.
Manbites Dog Theater Company presents Shopping and F***ing Friday-Saturday, Nov. 28-29, at 8:15 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 30, at 3:15 p.m.; and Wednesday-Saturday, Dec. 3-6, at 8:15 p.m. in Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina. $15 Friday-Sunday and $10 Thursday, except pay what you like Dec. 3 ($5 minimum). 919/682-3343 or http://www.tix.com/Schedule.asp?OrganizationNumber=150 [inactive 8/04]. http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/2/.