Like pornography, sexual addiction has probably been around ever since Adam removed Eve's fig leaf. But in some eyes, it's still not seen as a legitimate addiction. There is still no entry for sexual addiction in the DSM-IV — the psychologist's bible — and the recent emergence of sexually addicted celebrities has prompted mostly punch lines, not awareness.
Which is where Henry Covery's debut play, The First Step (Diary of a Sex Addict), comes in. Covery (if that is his real name) is a recovering sex addict himself, and he based the work on personal experience. The result, which is enjoying its southeastern premiere at Empire Stage, goes a long way toward solidifying sex addiction as a disease.
We see everything from the point of view of Joe (Larry Buzzeo), a gay sex addict and our conduit into an increasingly sordid world. Forever haunted by the sexual abuse suffered from his father, Joe begins by acting out his compulsions in restroom stalls, engaging in the kind of sneaker ballets popularized by a Republican senator. Communal masturbation with bathroom toe-tappers soon leads to the real thing: a succession of one-night stands arranged at bars, truck stops, and "video booths" — seamy spaces where deviants can congregate and exchange semen, aided by the anonymity of a glass partition. Then, of course, comes the ultimate sex-addiction enabler: the internet and its copious buffet of perversion.
Covery and the play's director, Michael Leeds, tell Joe's story with uproarious humor, disturbing psychodrama, and a freewheeling unpredictability — a nonlinear approach that befits the play's origins in the fringe festival circuit seven years ago. The narrative jumps from flashbacks to Joe's present-day self-destruction (he has contracted HIV in the process) to a number of creative sketches aided by a four-piece ensemble that includes Naked Stage cofounder Katherine Amadeo. The differences between gays and straights and between gay and straight sex addicts are revealed in an amusing, faux-Dating Game arrangement; an endless array of sexually suggestive online screen names are rapped out in a hilariously choreographed hip-hop number; the members of a Sexual Compulsives Anonymous meeting sing their various and sundry disorders as show-tune parodies; and Joe eventually has to defeat his addiction by way of an existential boxing match.
Jeffrey D. Holmes' lighting design employs a dim, occasionally flashlit minimalism to create mystery, depravity, and psychological anguish from Joe's nocturnal sex binges and mental meanderings. Matthew William Chizever is the best of the stellar ensemble, earning our contempt as Joe's abusive father one minute and making us laugh the next in a number of colorful supporting roles. All the while, Buzzeo commands the floor, sweating bullets under the hot lights in a role that sees him onstage for the play's entirety.
Along the way, skeptics of sex addiction's legitimacy will walk away with an understanding of just how debilitating the disease is. As Joe explains, the sex addict's brain is wired differently from most people's. The urge to masturbate is constant — some addicts can urinate blood or cause permanent damage to their genitals from such perpetual activity — and even benign, everyday conversations seem subtextually sexual to the sex addict. This can destroy an addict's professional as well as personal life. At its very least, sex addiction is a pervasive distraction; Joe sees everyone, from his coworkers to the palsy-suffering man on the street he encounters one morning, as sexual beings, imagining them all without their clothes on.
He hits intellectual bottom, perhaps, when he wonders about the cock size of an animated prince in a Disney movie. It is all-consuming details like these that the Charlie Sheens of the world, in all their hedonistic abandon, are less likely to reveal.