New York Theatre Dispatch: Donkey Punch at the SoHo Playhouse

New York Theatre Dispatch: <em>Donkey Punch</em> at the SoHo Playhouse
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Donkey Punch. Photo by Hunter Canning
Kyle (Jon McCormick), Sam (Lauren Dortch-Crozier) and Kareena (Cleo Gray) in Donkey Punch at the SoHo Playhouse. Photo by Hunter Canning.

What if the problem with having a one true love was the prospect of having only one? That is the question Donkey Punch, a new play by Micheline Auger, makes a vague attempt at answering. The play twins the stories of free-spirited Kareena, whose foray into happily-ever-after is stymied by her uncertain relationship to monogamy, and her prudish friend Sam – whose romance with a pornographer finds her experimenting with blonde hair dye and silicone breasts. Donkey Punch, with its litany of pop culture references and painfully self-conscious characters – “Isn’t the word prude so 1950’s?” wonders one character aloud, after having used the phrase for the entire ninety-minute play – positions itself as a statement play about the modern relationship.

The problem with a play about the modern relationship, however, is that it seems to have little interest in the actual relationships it explores. Both Kareena and Sam are drawn with such broad strokes – Kareena has anonymous sex with men she met on the Internet! Sam’s never even tried a vibrator! – that they feel less like real people than like allegorical figures in a modern morality play: a tale that, for all the winking references to sex toy shops (New York’s The Pleasure Chest is listed as a sponsor in the programme) and Spin classes, feels uncomfortably regressive. Sam’s transformation from vulnerable innocent to implant-sporting sex bomb is treated as a cautionary tale, as her seedy-yet-charming pornographer boyfriend is revealed as exactly as unreliable as she fears he’ll end up being. Meanwhile, Kareena’s fate – culminating in a disturbing rape scene – falls dangerously into misogynistic “punishment of a promiscuous woman” tropes. Sam is given too little agency; Kareena too little sympathy – neither is allowed, within the play’s confines, to explore ways in which they might not fall neatly within the sexual boundaries they have set for themselves. Kareena’s relationship with the “perfect” Teddy (Michael Drew) is so obviously doomed (and the whingeing, “emasculated” Teddy so utterly despicable) that her difficulty with the role of monogamous “girlfriend” seems the very lest of her relationship problems.

Both women’s relationships, furthermore, are less interesting than the relationship they have with one another. In the play’s strongest moments, Kareena (Cleo Gray) and Sam (Lauren Dortch-Crozier) find themselves using their sexual desires and histories as subtle methods competition: when Kareena advises Sam about which sex toy to buy, or when Sam giddily reveals her newfound erotic prowess to a Kareena still reeling from what she feels is a sexual dry spell. In these moments, sexual identity – the shifting roles of “Madonna” and “Whore” – is revealed as an artificial construct: no less a component of creating a persona than the hip yoga classes Sam and Kareena attend, or the modern art on Kareena’s walls. Sexual jealousy is revealed as far less interesting than the jealousy between two women who each feel trapped by the roles they’re expected to play.

But neither Auger nor director Audrey Alford seem as interested in the ambiguity of this power dynamic as they are in the two heterosexual relationships on display. While Gray and Dortch-Crozier – at their best when playing off each other – bring more complexity to Donkey Punch than the text often provides, they never fully commit to the possibility of these moments.

Donkey Punch is consistently entertaining. The dialogue is snappy enough, and the show’s ninety minutes pass at a suitably brisk pace. But the play’s shallow approach to its characters makes it difficult to see beyond the labels Donkey Punch tries only half-heartedly to explore.

Donkey Punch continues at the SoHo Playhouse until August 31.

Tara Isabella Burton

About Tara Isabella Burton

Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Arc, The Dr TJ Eckleburg Review, Guernica, and more. In 2012 she received the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency of New York; her first novel is currently on submission.

Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Arc, The Dr TJ Eckleburg Review, Guernica, and more. In 2012 she received the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency of New York; her first novel is currently on submission.

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