Prostitution play fails to grasp serious subject

Soliciting Temptation GigCity EdmontonWhen it premiered in Toronto in 2014, Erin Shield’s new play Soliciting Temptation conflicted the reviewers. The Globe and Mail could only eek out “tolerable” while The National Post found it “the season’s best new play.”

A new co-production from Calgary’s Sage Theatre and Edmonton’s Shadow Theatre – at the Varscona Theatre until March 26 – falls somewhere between the two.

The intermissionless, 90-minute two-hander benefits from Jason Mehmel’s well-paced direction and two fine performances from Patricia Cerra and Mattie Overall. The production is talky and the events are contrived but the subject matter is provocative. The play is often surprising and generates some dramatic traction.

Soliciting Temptation opens in a dingy room in some third-world country. We are in Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness territory here as we meet a middle-aged man (he is identified in the program only as “Man”), hot, mopping his brow and scarfing down the booze. He’s very unhappy with his room and its broken air conditioner and fan, and is on the phone demanding to be moved when there’s a knock on the door. It is the “Woman” (also identified this way in the program) that he is expecting. She’s dark, young (but not a child) and exotic.

It becomes obvious very quickly that what we are watching is another sad chapter in the story of the international sex trade.

Soliciting Temptation GigCity EdmontonHe’s a lonely businessman and she is a young prostitute. He is obsessed with her age and keeps asking her how old she is, as if somehow her youth is an aphrodisiac. She says nothing but proceeds to remove her clothes. He’s caught off balance by the abruptness of the act and even more surprised when she breaks into perfect English. Not only does she speak, but begins to harangue him about his dark immoral desires and threatens to bring the powers of morality down on his head. It’s a quite compelling opening even if you don’t really believe in either of them.

Turns out the fellow is the victim of a set up. His prospective young conquest is in reality a fiercely idealistic young woman from the Western world who is bent on trapping sex tourists – or more exactly, just him. However, she seems to be making it up as she goes along and hasn’t thought out what happens next. For one thing, we are asked to believe that she has traveled over half the world to rant at this hapless fellow. Is there a large organization behind her? Are the police to be called? Is this a sting operation? What is she – some kind of vengeful freelance sexual vigilante?

Soliciting Temptation is a play-long dialogue that skirts around and never comes to grips with the very serious subject it raises. The two performers successfully invoke a number of emotions ranging through anger, humiliation and (for the man) the very present fear of exposure.

The fulcrum of power gravitates back and forth between the two as they take turns grabbing the advantage. She stakes out the moral high-ground, although he observes she sounds as if she’s reading off a website. He is given the unenviable task of trying to rationalize the sex trade.

“It improves the local economy,” the Man says weakly. He even goes at some length into the wet dream of every john – that real love is generated during the transaction.

“She sings in the morning,” he rhapsodizes. Overall is a good actor, but I don’t think he convinced anyone in the audience – certainly not the Woman. The dialogue is generally artificial and you can almost see the ideas gestating in the mind of the playwright.

As the work progresses, Shields tries to move her characters toward some human connection (or at least some common ground) and in that she is largely assisted by the two performers. They battle gamely to overcome the problems with the script and you find yourself at least mildly involved with the two – all of which is rendered moot when Shields suddenly pulls the play out from under them with a precipitous and highly unsatisfactory ending.

At the beginning of the play the air conditioner and the fan are broken. In some ways, so are the two characters. Probably neither will ever be repaired. The topic certainly deserves a probing theatrical investigation and while the play opens up Pandora’s Box, it doesn’t look very deeply inside.