The tornado sirens were blaring, and the noise, bouncing off buildings, asphalt, and concrete, sounded like it was coming from everywhere all at once. Car alarms were screaming like cats on fire, and the sky was blacker than the devil's darkest fantasy. On the radio and television announcers were claiming, "If there was ever a tornado that could hit downtown Memphis, this is it." Officials even closed down the barbecue contest and sent everybody home en masse. Needless to say, things weren't exactly hopping in the Edge, the ever-expanding artists' haven on the outskirts of downtown where Marshall and Madison converge. And that spelled bad news for the actors at Sleeping Cat Studio who performed their twisted one-act play Tell Me You Love Me for an audience of two. To their good credit, neither the terrible storm blowing outside nor the miniature audience seemed to affect the cast in the least. The show went on, and what a show it was.
When I first reviewed this play by local producer and playwright Jim Esposito back in 1999, I wrote, "If John Waters and Jean-Luc Godard got rip-snortin' drunk one night and decided to rewrite Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf before sunrise, the result might very well resemble Jim Esposito's Tell Me You Love Me . B-movie fans will love it, gentle souls will loathe it, and hipsters will get off on hanging out in Esposito's way cool warehouse apartment/theater, where they can eat, drink, smoke, and laugh at jokes about aneurysms. It is no insult to say that the cast has the kind of commitment, energy, and amateurish appeal appropriate only to that desolate place where the French New Wave pours its load into the mouth of the great Waters."
Four years, a brand-new (if equally cool) theater, and a couple of rewrites later, virtually none of this commentary applies. While the play still has some very funny moments, the jokes no longer generate the wave on which the story rides. Now it plays more like something David Lynch might have created in a moment of pure whimsy. And the cast (Amy Van Doren, Michael B. Conway, and Richard Crowe) are (for both better and worse) far too experienced to create the improvisational feel that made the original production so attractive. But none of this is to say that this production of Tell Me You Love Me is in any way inferior to the original. It's just different. Very different. And there is nothing wrong with that.
Esposito has, in the last few years, matured as a playwright. The first act of his family drama Night Blooming Cereus is virtually flawless, and his wartime drama The Ribbon Mill proved that he could create characters so unforgettable they could make you forget that the story was repetitive and full of holes. Tell Me You Love Me, a one-act that runs exactly one hour, is a throwback to the days when seeing an Esposito play was a real crapshoot. You might see something fun and thought-provoking. You might see a sophomoric staging of a dirty joke. You might just see something dirty for the sake of being dirty. Tell Me You Love Me is all three, and taken as a whole, it is possibly Esposito's most satisfying play to date. With more twists than Chubby Checker, it tells the story of a middle-aged couple who, through the conduit of a third party, express their love in a rather unconventional way. And while this production gives a little too much away too early on, the last-minute surprise is still reasonably surprising and appropriately perverse.
To even begin explaining the plot of Tell Me You Love Me would give too much away. Though this sick little sex-play is no mystery, it uses a decidedly Hitchcockian brand of suspense that should be experienced sans spoilers.
Sleeping Cat has announced plans to extend the run of Tell Me You Love Me into June, though they have not officially announced the new run dates. The extension is not the result of popular demand. In fact, the opposite is true. The show has taken a beating in terms of attendance. Between the activities surrounding Memphis in May and the spate of bad weather, audiences have been small, even by Sleeping Cat standards. And that's too bad. While I've had more than my share of negative things to say about many of Esposito's plays, this is one I can largely recommend front to back. The simple (if less than subtle) performances by Crowe, Conway, and Van Doren tend to hide the piece's weaker moments. Tell Me You Love Me is the kind of theater that could make moralizers like John Ashcroft and Rick Santorum want to move to Canada. So I say, Bring it on.