There's a saying to the effect that no one knows what goes on in someone else's house. Paula Vogel opens the door to one of those houses in her gruelingly powerful play "Hot 'N' Throbbing."
What she finds inside isn't pretty, but as staged by artistic director Molly Smith at Washington's Arena Stage, it has the feel of brutal, urgent reality.
Where other playwrights often say they write to make sense of things they don't understand, Vogel writes about things that frighten her -- things like AIDS ("The Baltimore Waltz"), child abuse (the Pulitzer Prize-winning "How I Learned to Drive") and, in the case of "Hot 'N' Throbbing," domestic violence. Her plays have a way of charming you and scaring you at the same time.
The house in this particular play is the broken home of Charlene (Lynnda Ferguson), who earns a living writing soft-core pornography, and her two teen-age children, Leslie Ann (Rhea Seehorn) and Calvin (Danny Pintauro). It's a home that's broken in more ways than one.
In the standard sense of the term, it's broken because the parents are no longer together; the action takes place on the day Charlene's estranged husband, Clyde (Colin Lane), receives a restraining order.
Visually, the home appears broken because designer Bill C. Ray's set presents a cut-away view of Charlene's flimsy tract house.
And theatrically, it is broken because Vogel splits the focus between the family and two non-realistic characters -- a leather-and-fishnet-clad woman identified as "The Voice Over" (Sue Jin Song) and a business-suited man called "The Voice" (Craig Wallace).
Vogel not only writes about subjects other playwrights shy away from, she writes about them in a way unlike any other playwright. In "Hot 'N' Throbbing," Song and Wallace prowl Charlene's living room or lurk on the periphery. Unseen by the other characters and illuminated by lighting designer Allen Lee Hughes in a red tint, they occasionally act out fantasies or shift the action by issuing orders, such as "flashback" or "jump cut."
Individually, Song speaks Charlene's thoughts while she types her latest blue screenplay or registers her fears after Clyde forces his way into the house. Wallace, meanwhile, reads the lines spoken by the fictional detective in Charlene's screenplay or recites passages from a variety of suggestive texts, from Henry Miller to James Joyce.
These references are juxtaposed with a constant array of black-and-white videos that play silently on four monitors throughout the 90-minute production. Horror movies, science fiction, Road Runner cartoons, vintage sitcoms, riot footage and Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart movies combine with Wallace's literary passages to remind us of the onslaught of influences that indiscriminately bombard our homes. It's a valid point, but the monitors distract from the main event.
And the main event deserves our full attention, which is Vogel's primary point: There's a war being fought in our living rooms, and we can't afford to look the other way. After drunken Clyde breaks into Charlene's home and starts to disrobe, Charlene shoots him in the naked buttock. She then intends to take him to the hospital, but he, she or one of their fractious children keeps causing dangerous delays -- dangerous because both parents are drinking, and Clyde is a mean drunk.
Vogel began working on this play in 1985, and Arena's production is a newly revised version, with an ending that now contains the slightest vestige of hope for the next generation. The play, however, still seems uncompromisingly honest, and it is performed with searing intensity -- and occasional flashes of humor -- by Smith's closely attuned cast.
From its title to its graphically violent penultimate scene, "Hot 'N' Throbbing" would be a daring play for any theater to produce. Arena Stage has accepted the dare, run with it and flaunted it, by making Vogel's play the season opener. "Hot 'N' Throbbing" is about as far from safe theater as you can get. It's a theatrical 911 call that no serious theatergoer can afford to ignore.
'Hot 'N' Throbbing'
Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. S.W., Washington
When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; selected matinees at 2: 30 Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays and noon Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Through Oct. 17