There’s a serendipitous feeling that Sell/Buy/Date — Sarah Jones’ one-woman, many-character piece running Off-Broadway through Nov. 20, courtesy of Manhattan Theatre Club — has been conjured up by a miraculous collective unconscious.
Here we are these days, mired in discussions of man-woman conflicts as a result of Donald J. Trump’s incriminating Access Hollywood video, and suddenly Jones arrives with a brilliant discourse on commercial sex practices that puts everything into an intelligent, amusing, politically profound context.
From the instant Sell/Buy/Date lifts off on Dane Laffrey’s elegantly spare set, spectators know they’re in capable hands. The obligatory turn-off-electronic-devices request has only just been given when out walks Jones in a snazzy black leotard outfit to explain, as if to students at a lecture, that cell phones were an early-21st-century appliance.
How smart is she to frame her piece as glossy science fiction! Instantly she establishes herself as a later-in-the-21st-century expert on the history of commercial sex — prostitution and related careers, like pimping. Eagerly, she opens a talk on the destructive repercussions and ramifications of prostitution before it was widely legalized.
She tells the class that she’ll illustrate her points by presenting additional speakers through a method known as BERT: Behavioral Empathetic Resonant Technology. In other words, she will run many appearances by figures taped live, starting in long ago 2017 and stretching into subsequent decades.
As Jones’s lecturer-character introduces them — speaking always in a modified Received Pronunciation accent — we meet a parade of characters with direct or indirect experience of prostitution and, important to the thesis of the talk, surviving it.
Eric Southern’s lighting design does plenty to focus the commentators, beginning with the first BERT person: a straight-talking elderly woman who sounds very New Yawk Jewish. She is followed by numerous women and men who represent an impressively wide spectrum of sexperts. Each speaks not only from a different vantage point, but often from different ethnic and racial backgrounds. Such diversity, of course, allows Jones to show off her vast mimicry skills. Sometimes it even seems as if she’s chosen or devised these characters simply in order to demonstrate her eye- and ear-popping range. If so, more power to her.
An East Indian woman and a Native American man who calls himself a “Lakota from Dakota” have their say. There’s a Trinidadian pretending to be Jamaican, a latter day Valley girl. There’s a middle-aged Russian man chatting about his empire and declaring that he’s not embarrassed to acknowledge that he runs brothels. That’s only a few of the characters.
As the lecturer discourses, she’s frequently either interrupted by someone or by herself. She needs to communicate with either her mother, Bonita, or an unspecified superior. Apparently she’s about to be announced as the head of a new department. A delay, however, has cropped up involving someone else discovered to have identical credentials. Our lecturer indicates that she knows how to take care of the problem and will do so with her mother’s assistance.
Because the lecturer conscientiously thanks the class for indulging her brief absences, Jones makes it seem as if the talk and the credential crisis are separate concerns. Yet the piece doesn’t reach its final conclusion until the elements are tied together. In the bargain — and as a blackout twist — she reveals the origin of that mellifluous, Received Pronunciation accent.
Although it may seem as if Sell/Buy/Date resembles a TED talk (something Jones gives regularly in real life), this is anything but dry. Jones’ lecturer is constantly funny; so is the BERT contingent. The jokes are like condiments: broadly spread. It’s unfair to quote too many, but maybe this one can be repeated:
Q: What do you call male sluts?
(Don’t tell me that joke isn’t as timely today as tomorrow morning’s headlines. Certainly it is, so long as that Access Hollywood video is rerun.)
The beauty of Sell/Buy/Date is Jones’ vision of the future. She imagines that today’s troubles have been faced and overcome. Racism, sexism, you name it — vanquished. Her future is enlightened. By contrast, she’s able to convey the notion that contemporary life is less mature, less examined.
By implying as much, she simultaneously kids today’s audiences and holds out hope for them. She’s a welcome beacon of wisdom at a time when idiocy is our chief political commodity. If you ask me, she could not have strolled in with her perspectives soon enough. Let’s crown her with laurels.
Jones’s method is akin to the theatrical documentaries that Anna Deavere Smith creates and performs. Whereas Smith plays actual interviewees, Jones’ folks are fictional, yet Jones has the same educational aims of Smith in mind. As she bows, she waits for the applause to peak so she can remind patrons that their programs contain bibliographies. This is the act of a political activist.