To get to your seat, you walk past someone’s toilet, stationed next to their sink, above which their pill bottles sit on a shelf.
It’s hard to get more intimate than that.
And yet that’s exactly what “Shhhh” manages to do. The new play, written by, directed by and starring Clare Barron, is explicit and occasionally uncomfortable, but all for the right reasons.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s exquisite set design for the show, which opened on Monday at Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2, truly makes the space feel as if it were an apartment transformed into a theater rather than the reverse. There’s that bathroom stage left. And in a corner, partially obscured by a wall, a mattress lies on the floor, the sheets tousled on top. Candles and hanging string lights create a seductive atmosphere, but the industrial-looking metal rolling carts add a cool edge. And the audience members in the first few rows sit on cushions on the floor, extending the cozy vibe.
“Shhhh” begins with Sally (named Witchy Witch in the program, and performed by Constance Shulman) recording an ASMR meditation. The sound of it is unsettling. Shulman’s signature rasp seems to envelop the space as she narrates what she’s doing — she talks about the Lysol wipe she’s using as we hear the sound of the cloth moving, amplified by a mic, and she taps her nails against a ceramic cup, telling us it’s full of lavender tea. She speaks slowly, stretching the syllables of each word so far they could reach from the theater, in Chelsea, to the East River. (The sharp sound design is by Sinan Refik Zafar.)
Sally, a postal worker, says her job makes her feel close to people, even though that intimacy isn’t real. She goes on a so-so date with Penny (Janice Amaya), a nonbinary person who shares that they feel most comfortable and in control of their body during sex parties.
Sally’s sister is Shareen (Barron), a playwright with a lot of “health stuff” who has a codependent and often consensually iffy sexual relationship with a male friend, Kyle (Greg Keller).
And Francis (Nina Grollman) and Sandra (Annie Fang) are, well, two random young women who talk about body agency and consent in a pizza shop as Shareen, sitting at another table, silently listens.
“Shhhh!” doesn’t have a traditional narrative; there’s no antagonist, and there’s not much of a sense of causality across scenes. The work itself has the feel of a series of flirtations: discomfort, assaults, insecurities and sorrows are spoken about and alluded to, but not detailed. We don’t get back stories or explainers. We just get the way these people speak and move and touch in relationship to one another. It’s telling that most of the sex acts mentioned are ones of penetration and discharge but much less often about the simple delicacies of a caress, or a kiss.
The conversations these characters have are visceral: They talk of gushing wounds, feces-covered sheets, body fluids of all flavors. Though this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with Barron’s works, which include “I’ll Never Love Again” and the Pulitzer Prize finalist “Dance Nation.” She’s made a specialty of writing what are essentially staged memoirs of the body. Barron rarely opts for the romantic idea of pleasure, instead examining pleasure tied to physical violence and emotional manipulation, shame, self-esteem and trauma. The whole production aches with an unspoken loneliness.
That ache comes through in Barron’s direction, but also in the performances, led by Barron herself, who sheaths Shareen in a delicate melancholy. Her gaze seems to drift off into the distance serenely but without satisfaction. She seems unsteady. And yet her somberness also belies a ferocious hunger; throughout the show Shareen plays with her food, pressing her fingertips into the scraps, crumbs and flakes on her plate or table and bringing them to her mouth, almost compulsively. The characters move self-consciously — in the way they recline or cross their legs — and seem to traverse the distances that separate them cautiously, as if wading through a river to the other shore.
Keller is believable as the guy friend who soon realizes he may have to hold himself accountable for some questionable bedroom behaviors, and Grollman, Fang and Amaya, who get to wear the show’s most eclectic fashions (the satisfyingly offbeat costume design is by Kaye Voyce), give top-tier performances in small roles. Shulman is less convincing as Shareen’s older sister, supposedly by only two years, despite the nearly 30-year age gap between the two actresses. Shulman’s monotone drawl is a comic novelty at first, helping many of the jokes land, but this delivery, dry as a dust storm in the desert, becomes tiresome.
The other issue is the show’s erratic pacing. A Looney Tunes-esque chase scene and a mystical ritual both feel interminable. While other scenes are too short, and characters lack depth. Amaya has a sparky energy, but their character is less developed in relation to the others. And the characters of Francis and Sandra speak in only one scene, in the pizza shop, though the dialogue is incredibly compelling: candid exchanges about what it’s like to be a woman in a world of modern dating, and romantic metaphors about isolation and desire. I could’ve watched an entire show of this conversation.
I went into this show expecting the grotesque and perhaps even the gratuitous, especially once I passed a sign in the theater warning the audience about the nudity and the play’s content. Nothing triggered me or offended me, not even Shareen’s description of her diarrhea or the sight of a used DivaCup. (I can’t say the same for everyone else, particularly the three audience members who shuffled out early in the show, never to return.)
But then there was one moment that got to me, when Francis and Sandra are talking about the ways the men they’ve dated have manipulated their way to getting what they want, like unprotected sex. As Francis recounted a drunken negotiation she had with a guy, my body stiffened. The exchange was so familiar; it made me recall my own sticky encounter with a date.
While that moment in the show may have made me feel uncomfortable, I was also grateful for the scene, and even the thorny feeling it inspired — theater should sometimes cause us discomfort. After all, the greatest intimacies we can hope for, as audience members, are those we build between our seats and the stage.
Through Feb. 20 at Atlantic Stage 2, Manhattan; atlantictheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.