TAMPA — In purely visual terms, The Blue Room is a knockout. Alison Burns and Jim Sorensen, the actors playing all the roles in David Hare's 10-part sexual roundelay, look terrific. The Stageworks production by director Karla Hartley (also responsible for sound and lighting) is a stylish affair, placing the action on a circular platform in Greg Bierce's set design, bathed in moody shades of blue and red, with video imagery on the back wall. Music between the scenes ranges from loud, hard-driving rock to spacey electronica.
Hare's play is "freely adapted" from a famous source, Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler's scandalous Reigen, which was made into an even more famous movie, Max Ophuls' La Ronde. The concept is apparently irresistible for its shock value, voyeurism and ersatz Freudian analysis in depicting an interlocking series of assignations: The prostitute picks up the cab driver, the cab driver seduces the au pair, the au pair seduces the student and so on, until the circle winds up a year later with the prostitute and the aristocrat.
The Blue Room is probably best known for the critical outburst its 1998 London premiere (with Nicole Kidman) inspired: "Pure theatrical Viagra" (which Stageworks shamelessly includes on its poster for the show), a reviewer raved. Maybe it's the British obsession with the combination of sex and class that made the play such hot stuff, but for me, it has a kind of chilly abstraction that is the opposite of anything erotic. Even though there is lots of nudity, which the actors bring off well, the schematic structure and effort of it all — the constant undressing and dressing — tends to undercut the sexuality.
It doesn't help that the Stageworks production is a bit murky in establishing the identity of the characters, as Burns and Sorensen seem to be trying on different accents almost randomly at times. Unless you're following along in the playbill, it's pretty hard to know that Sorensen's character in scenes 3 and 4 is a student. Burns' au pair wears a baby-doll dress and high heels that are more appropriate for the prostitute or the model.
Burns has some amazing moments in The Blue Room, notably as the married woman, the wife of a politician, in both her anxious, avid fling with a callow student lover and then a night at home with her husband. With her sharp features, blonde shag haircut, the tattoo on her left ankle and wide-eyed, knowing expression, she is deliciously watchable as a spoiled beauty, idly flipping the pages of a book as she half listens to her clueless husband's prattle. She's a former bright young thing getting up in years, and more than a little jaded with the world, but all the sexier for her discontent.
Hare's male characters tend to come across badly — there's even an absurdly pompous playwright — and Sorensen has the tougher task of the two actors, not to mention his unflattering black socks and briefs that belong in homemade porn flick. In a steamy, candle-lit encounter between the playwright and the model, he makes like a troubadour, strumming his guitar and singing the title song, with its allusive lyrics: "I'm in the blue room / I'm in the blue / The dream was just a dream / It wasn't you."
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.