OR, SCHOOL FOR SLAVES
The quick line on Slap! is that it’s got lots of good material in it yet is still in a frustratingly inchoate dramatic form. Its scenario concerns a man and a woman (Jack and Jill) engaged ferociously (perhaps pathologically) in games of sadomasochism. They act out the whippings, cross-dressing, and psychodramas of dominance and submission in a room with a bed, a hotplate for making tea, and a functioning electric chair. They seem to live in fear and loathing of “the old guy” in the next room (from whom is heard only grunts and Hebrew prayer), who can see them through a peephole in the wall.
As might be gathered from this synopsis, this is not a very accessible work. A playwright needn’t spoon-feed his thesis to an audience, but too much here is just plain baffling. There is not enough for a viewer to go on in deciphering where the action is occurring, who is the old man, or what is the greater meaning of it all.
Throughout the script, Chatterton has many lines of thought spiraling out and never reeled in, with a resultant disjointed feel to the whole text. He is at his best, though, in isolated moments of epiphany, when supposedly make-believe lines in an S/M psychodrama take on a reality that gets to the inner truth of the characters in an almost Pirandellian sense. Especially in the man, confusion and panic over sexual identity is projected into a greater paranoia (with accusations of CIA control of everything from the phone company to gynecologists). The denouement seems to imply a sort of death-wish within the S/M compulsion. But, again, this is never made clear enough.
In directing Chatterton’s script, Ted Mornel took the material the only place it could go: over the top. Many moments were downright bone-shaking, such as his staging of Jack raping Jill with a belt buckle. The inherent problem with this approach, though, is an inevitable lapse into a “Can You Top This?” escalation. This is nowhere more evident than in the grotesque scab makeup Jack wears after Jill scalds his face with water. It’s profoundly unsettling, but also terribly distracting. Less charred flesh would ahve made for more dramatic effectiveness.