An audience should go into Alicia Dattner's solo show The Oy of Sex forewarned about a couple of things, both of which are nicely indicated by the title. One is that that Dattner talks pretty explicitly about sex throughout the show, so it's for audiences 17 and up. The other is that it makes sex sound like no fun at all.
Oy is Dattner's tell-all (okay, maybe not all) account of years of sleeping around with guys she didn't even like just because she wanted them to want her -- or sometimes because it seemed the easiest way to get rid of them. It's also a tale of recovery, of hitting rock bottom (or, from the way she tells it, having been there from the start) and learning, with the help of a love addiction support group, to love you-know-who. (Herself. I'm talking about herself, not the Lord or something.)
Alicia Dattner; photo: Robert Strong
San Francisco, and the Marsh in particular, is a hub of theatrical solo shows, and a lot of them fall into one particular category: standup comedians get serious with a confessional narrative about one aspect or another of their messed-up lives. Of course, they want to make these as funny as possible, but part of the learning curve is learning to go a while without a laugh in order to let the story they're telling hit home. The Oy of Sex certainly fits that description. Dattner is a longtime comedian, and her previous show, the 2009 San Francisco Fringe Festival premiere Eat, Pray, Laugh!, recounted her trip to India in search of enlightenment.
Dattner's delivery is very much that of the standup comic. She paces around with mike in hand, prompting the audience from time to time to help her out with time-travel sound effects or to chip in their contributions to a word-substitution game she and an ex used to play. That style seems very much at home in the bare-bones production directed by Joshua Townshend Zellner in the Marsh's Upstairs Studio. There's no set at all, just a black curtain, a stool and a microphone stand.
Alicia Dattner; photo: Melissa Schwartz
Dattner is thorough in recounting her longtime obsession with getting some loving, going all the way back to crushes in grade school. ("Dear diary, I can't wait until all the kissing starts. I've been practicing on my hand, and I'm getting really good.") She talks about finally getting kissed in high school, and then finding there was a lot more where that came from: "Suddenly I could have any guy I wanted -- for one night." From early days of drawing the line at third base to later experiments with polyamory, the common theme is hooking up with guys she's not even into just to prove to herself that she could, and she does a good job of making it all sound like a drag. Being in a relationship, having affairs, having random people go down on her out of the blue -- it's all just uncomfortable and awkward and tedious.
There's a lot of funny stuff in the show, less in the anecdotes (which, no matter how outrageous they are, are more sad than humorous) than in the wry observations Dattner makes along the way. She notes how self-defined sex-positive people can be as mind-numbingly detail-oriented in talking about their bedroom practices as computer programmers discussing code. She's very conscious of how counterintuitive a support group for love addicts can be. "Fabulous idea!" she says "Put them all in a room together, put all their numbers on a list, and tell them to call someone when they're afraid they might... call someone." The recovery section is predictably the least interesting bit, and the redemptive ending is strained.
Though Dattner has good comic delivery, it can be overeager, like she's trying too hard to make a connection with the audience. It's not that the trying itself is a bad thing, of course, but how effortful it feels is sometimes problematic. However much she may have learned not to depend on others for validation, every performer still needs the love of the crowd.
The Oy of Sex runs through January 18, 2014 at the Marsh in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit themarsh.org.