The title character of Jane Anderson’s The Escort isn’t a policeman assigned to guard a VIP or an older bachelor providing a spare arm to a wealthy widow at a society function, and she’s not that Ford compact car that ceased production back in 2002. (That would just be silly.) The title character of Jane Anderson’s The Escort (getting its World Premiere at the Geffen Playhouse) is a young woman of the sort who used to be called a hooker, a lady of the evening, a whore, or just plain prostitute. That being said, the escort Anderson introduces us to in the person of actress Maggie Siff is so all-American adorable that any of those crude monikers would seem as out of place as a, well, as a whore in church on Sunday.

But that’s exactly what Charlotte (Siff) does, and makes good money at. Strike that, makes great money at. And she seems happy. Actually, she seems positively glowing as she breaks the fourth wall and explains to us one of playwright Anderson’s central conceits, that all nudity in The Escort will be suggested by skin-toned body suits, hers with nipples sketched in on a thickly padded flesh-colored bra, a male counterpart’s by an extra-large prosthetic phallus attached to a pair of flesh-hued boxer briefs. (It seems the playwright finds real nudity so distracting that the only thing she can remember from a production of Equus is that the actors weren’t natural blonds.) Oh, and she informs us that the same actor who’ll be playing a male escort will also be portraying a thirteen-year-old, the better to avoid the impropriety of hiring an age-appropriate actor to play jailbait.

It’s precisely this playful, tongue-in-cheek approach that allows Anderson’s latest play to be sexually explicit yet avoid the XXX rating its subject matter (and a number of its scenes) would seem to imply. And it’s a conceit that works, wonderfully, tempering shocks with whimsy in almost equal measure.

We first see Charlotte “in action” (albeit simulated) with one of her power clients (James Eckhouse, in the first of several roles) whose particular sexual fetish is the kind of anal penetration Charlotte is delighted to administer from her valise-ful of toys.

Being an escort who takes excellent care of her tip-top, silicone enhanced body, Charlotte next visits OB/GYN physician Rhona (Polly Draper), with whom our heroine feels an instant connection. At last, she thinks, a doctor who doesn’t recoil in horror at Charlotte’s chosen field of employ, a life choice she takes great pride in, and certainly a better one than those made by her overweight sisters already on their third husbands.

As for Rhona, well she’s the divorced mother of Lewis (Gabriel Sunday), the above-mentioned middle-schooler (though at thirteen he’s a tad too old for the seventh grade Anderson puts him in), a randy lad who not surprisingly spends most of his time glued to his laptop. (Lewis lets us in on his own personal secret to finding the best online porn. Just do a search for any noun + “sex” and the most interesting images pop up, tens of thousands of them.)

As friendship blooms between Charlotte and Rhona, the former hatches a plan to get her new best chum out of the sexual doldrums she’s been in since the breakup of her marriage to Howard (Eckhouse again). She suggests that her doctor pal give male escort Mathew (Sunday as an adult) a try, and after some initial hesitation, persuades the uptight physician that a no-strings-attached roll in the hay might be just what the sex doctor ordered. Completing the love/sex triangle, Rhona’s ex just happens to be a urologist, precisely the medical specialist a woman in Charlotte’s line of work might need to see, just as Charlotte is precisely the kind of career girl a busy male doctor might want to hire for some attachment-free sex.

At intermission, this reviewer and his plus-one both wondered aloud whether Act Two would reveal a darker side to the up-till-now sparklingly upbeat Charlotte and to the sex industry she vaunts with such unabashed enthusiasm. Without providing further spoilers, suffice it to say that the ever surprising Jane Anderson does not disappoint.

I loved The Escort from start to finish. I loved Anderson’s way with words, the deftness with which she shifts sympathy from character to character, and the way each of them (and Charlotte in particular) defy our expectations. The playwright’s own experience co-parenting a son with spouse Tess Ayers has doubtless informed The Escort’s mother-son scenes, the first of which has young Lewis deflecting every one of his mother’s criticisms and complaints with a mind-boggling finesse most adults would pay small fortunes to acquire.

Director Lisa Peterson (at the top of her craft here) and Anderson lucked out big-time in casting Siff as Charlotte. Anyone less innately likable than the infectiously endearing Siff would have turned audiences off to the titular escort (no pun intended) before we got to know her. With Siff in the role, we root for her from the get-go, want other characters to like her as much as we do, and feel compassion rather than (or at least in addition to) disgust as details of her more extreme sexual escapades come to light. Siff digs deep to give us a fully three-dimensional woman, no more so than when Anderson’s script allows us to see under her self-confident facade.

Draper, whose signature raspy voice brings back fond memories of her years as Ellyn on thirtysomething, likewise inspires our sympathy from her first appearance as Rhona, particularly when verbally trampled upon by a thirteen-year-old son who could give the craftiest lawyers in town a run for their money. Draper’s is a rich, multi-layered performance, and never more so than when Rhona turns from vivacious to vicious.

Busy film/TV/stage actor Eckhouse is as always terrific, this time in a trio of roles, most significantly as a well-meaning ex-husband and father with his own dark side, in addition to a pair of amusing cameos, as the aforementioned kinky businessman and as a hilariously snooty bitch of a waiter.

Finally, the tousle-haired Sunday makes a particularly memorable Geffen debut in a pair of diametrically different roles. As Lewis, he is the thirteen-year-old every mother fears her loveable twelve-year-old will become, a petulant, manipulative monster (though because we can’t help liking Sunday, we can’t help liking Lewis). As Mathew, the young actor is coolly suave and supremely sexy, with a prosthetic whopper that makes for some arousingly hilarious visuals, until this character too reveals his not-so-nice side.

Geffen productions are never anything less than design treats, and The Escort is no exception, from Richard Hoover’s classy, versatile set, to Rand Ryan’s vivid, highly effective lighting, to Paul James Prendergast’s first-rate sound design and sensual, suspenseful original music. Costume designer Laura Bauer gets extra high thumbs up for Charlotte’s stylish sexy escort-ware, the supporting players’ character-defining outfits, and (most especially) for a pair of whimsical nude-suits.

James T. McDermott is production stage manager, Jennifer Brienen assistant stage manager, Amy Levinson dramaturg, and Phyllis Schuringa casting director.

There will likely be those that The Escort will offend (though that is their problem, not the play’s), and those who will nitpick. This reviewer finds himself in neither category. I’ve never seen a play quite like The Escort. I enjoyed every seductive second of it.

Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.
–Steven Stanley
April 7, 2011
Photos: Michael Lamont

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