Sex among the simulators

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday May 17, 2017
Share this Post:
Nancy Shelby, center, plays a landlady who is offered an<br>usual form of rent by her lodgers (Rosie Hallett and Andre Amarotico) in Word<br>for Word            s <i>Smut,</i> an<br>adaptation of one of Alan Bennett           s short stories. Photo: Mel Solomon
Nancy Shelby, center, plays a landlady who is offered an
usual form of rent by her lodgers (Rosie Hallett and Andre Amarotico) in Word
for Word s Smut, an
adaptation of one of Alan Bennett s short stories. Photo: Mel Solomon

A big and obvious difference between fiction that is written for the page and fiction written for the stage is all those words – a.k.a. narration – that come between those times when the characters are actually speaking. A playwright offers stage directions, indicating a character's gestures, attitudes, or expressions, but those words are unheard by the audience, and their intentions fall to the actors to interpret. In fiction, dialogue doesn't necessarily reign as the supreme source of communication, with narration giving it context and flavor, with the characters' words often serving as periodic destinations in the storytelling.

But when that narration is dramatized, it can double up the effect, especially in a comic tale, as in the case of Smut: An Unseemly Story, where a narrated description of a character's behavior is often joined by an actor's emoting realization of it. When Alan Bennett writes that a character "uncoiled from his chair," the sight of actor Soren Oliver as an oleaginous doctor adding just a fillip of exaggerated body language is a quick but jolly sight gag.

There are repeated examples of this device in Word for Word's current production, which merrily moistens the dry humor that Bennett brought to his 2011 volume of two short stories published as Smut, a collective title that belies Bennett's gentlemanly approach to the sexual situations that arise in his heretofore genteel characters' lives.

Word for Word, a company dedicated to creating stage works from short stories without changing the authors' prose, has chosen "The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson" from the two Smut stories for its treatment. On stage at Z Below, the results are sublime as an excellent cast in an unexpectedly elaborate production tells the tale of a recent widow who choses not to go gentle into that good night. For Mrs. Donaldson, that choice of cautious adventure turns into a radical redirection.

Jane Donaldson, married 30 years to an emotionally distant man with unalloyed beliefs in traditional husband-wife roles, is only vaguely saddened by his death. Despite pressure from her surly daughter worried about appearances, Mrs. Donaldson takes in a young couple as lodgers, and then signs up to be part of a troupe of "simulated patients" at a local hospital where they are given various scenarios on which student doctors can practice their diagnostic skills and bedside manners.

She becomes quite the star among the simulators, with crafty improvisations that challenge the students and earn the admiration of a supervising doctor who is clumsily trying to court her. But more essential to her greening are the lodgers' invitation to observe a bout of lovemaking in lieu of their tardy rent. The optics of the situation of the couple going at it with imaginative gusto along with verbalizations of Mrs. Donaldson's observantly prim thoughts – and comparisons to the grim lovemaking with her late husband – become riotously funny.

Nancy Shelby fits right into the groove as Mrs. Donaldson, a woman who has "knuckled under" her whole life, and begins to blossom in her autumn awakening. Most of the other actors play two or more characters, and among the highlights are Robert Parsons as a lecherous fellow simulator, Delia MacDougall as both Mrs. Donaldson's closest confidante among the simulators and as her humorless daughter, Patricia Silver as the diva among the simulators, and Phil Wong as a particularly awkward student.

Rosie Hallett and Andre Amarotico play the libidinous young lodgers, with Amarotico particularly vibrant as the coyly seductive and somewhat exhibitionistic male partner. But if anyone runs away with the show, it's Soren Oliver as the supervising doctor, with his seemingly inexhaustible ability to bring big laughs to narration that only hints at that possibility. Oliver's performance at a karaoke pub, singing an overwrought version of Elton John's "Your Song" for Mrs. Donaldson's benefit, is priceless.

We periodically return to the pub, where different characters sing cheesy pop tunes that somehow relate to their situations, but these sequences are entirely the invention of the resourceful adapter-director Amy Kossow. Word for Word was once known for its word-for-word presentations of short stories, but this dictum has been loosened, and there are a number of small changes and major edits that have been made in Smut. But Bennett approved the adaptation, and it's an opinion seconded here.


Smut: An Unseemly Story will run at Z Below through June 11. Tickets are $40-$60. Call (415) 626-0453 or go to