Turning up the Heat

Turning up the Heat

Paula Vogel acknowledges the challenges in “Hot and Throbbing”

I expected to be intimidated in talking with her, yet on the phone Vogel has a gentle voice and an easy laugh. But, she is passionate about theater and politics, thoughtful and cogent—a dream interview, in fact. Unlike other noted playwrights who resist talking about their work in a cultural context or discussing their life beyond the stage, Vogel jumps right in and wastes no time getting to the big ideas.

Vogel’s play “Hot and Throbbing,” which has been performed around the world for more than a decade and translated into several languages, is finally getting its New York premiere at Peter Norton Space. Previews began last weekend, with an official run from March 28 through May 1. Asked why it’s taken so long for the play, which has been significantly re-worked, to hit the New York stage, Vogel cited the difficulties of creating theater in New York, especially plays with a dark subject matter. And, for all its comedy, “Hot and Throbbing” is a dark play.

Vogel added, however, “I’m proudest of this play of any play I’ve written. It was a play that was very hard to write and to produce because it demands a level of honesty and bravery as we watch.“

That, she said, makes it difficult to do in the expensive world of New York.

“We’re asking people to pay money to take a journey that’s going to provoke them and inspire thought and a long evening talk”

At least that’s the hope, but she said without the Signature’s support, this wouldn’t have happened. Because the subject is domestic violence and the play is unflinching, Vogel said that New York theater companies are scared they’ll alienate subscribers or that a commercial production wouldn’t be viable. Vogel called that hesitancy “censorship through capitalism,” which threatens not just the theater but the culture as a whole.

The play is a drawing room comedy, but in this case the mother is writing erotic screenplays to support her children, while she tries to keep her estranged husband away from them. It is a journey into the darkness and violence that Vogel says is happening in our living rooms, while the FCC worries about preventing “wardrobe malfunctions” from hitting our living rooms. Parsing the word “obscenity,” giving its Greek roots and noting that it comes from the words for “offstage,” distractions like the FCC hullabaloo are the real obscenities in our society, she argued. That which is obscene is that which is secret and not seen, and Vogel is passionate about the cultural detours that keep the serious issues—domestic violence, America’s role in the world, our forays into war—offstage.

With this play, Vogel is shining light into the shadows and forcing us to look at the fact that the sanitized term “domestic violence” is merely a politically palatable way of talking about murder, assault and abuse. “Obscenity,” Vogel said, “begins at home.” Our ingrained ability to look away, she argued, is what is contributing to the erosion of America’s credibility in the world. Vogel criticized the cowboy mentality that she said is at the heart of America’s aggression in the world, leading us to act out rigid gender roles both at home and throughout the world.

“Why is this rooted into an American psychology?” she asked. “Under the Bush administration, we are going back to a bully cowboy mythology. Aggression is masculine, anything like diplomacy is feminine and effete and where things like conversation, discussion, negotiation, diplomacy are in some ways being ridiculed.”

Vogel doesn’t pretend to have the answers, but she is more than willing to ask the questions, and she believes that the theater is the perfect place to do this. Like the town meeting or the church, she said, the theater is where people come together to grapple with the hard issues in a spirit of community, though she expressed fear that such debate is being undermined and trivialized by a media that focuses on the banal.

Vogel readily admitted that her play is difficult.

“In rehearsal, we keep checking in with each other to see if we’re okay with where we are,” she said, a sure sign that there is passion and commitment in the production. “We’re going to the cliff’s edge, laughing as we go, and I’m asking that people in this time and place in New York look at something that happens—the violence in our living rooms and the violence in the culture—and jump off the cliff with us.”

“Hot and Throbbing” uses erotica, pornography, comedy, dance and horror movie techniques as ways of dramatizing what Vogel calls “the war at home.”

Vogel said she hopes her critics are provoked—in the best possible way.

“If they hate the play, I want them to talk about it,” she said. “Passion in response to theater is an honor. It means you’ve taken the journey.”

If Vogel’s other work is any indication, the journey is bound to be thrilling. Her play “How I Learned to Drive” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. “The Mineola Twins” was equally provocative yet funny and deeply human as was her first play in this year’s Signature’s season, “The Oldest Profession.”

As one who has sat through endless evenings of both polemical tirades and tepid, careful political commentary, Vogel’s work has always been an exhilarating tonic that entertains, stimulates and, most importantly, respects the intelligence of her audience.

As for bringing this particular play to New York, Vogel said the town is ready to handle it.

“I think there’s still room to discuss the issues,” she said. “I’m proud of, and honored by this production. I know, paradoxically, that whether or not this is received well in New York, the play has life in other countries. It took me 15 years to get a play that examines the American family into New York, but when they’re doing it in Brazil…”

And like the brilliant playwright she is, Vogel lets her audience close the loop.