Theatre Vertigo, through June 29

Sarah Daniels' Masterpieces opens with six of its seven main characters sitting around a dinner table, discussing pornography. Their stances regarding the topic are made immediately clear. Yvonne (Nanette Pettit) is the obligatory feminist of the group, chastising porn adamantly for the violence it presents towards women. Her husband, Ron (Kam Sisco) sleeps around with other women, and is embarrassed by his wife's charged views. The loutish Trevor (Ben Plont) loves porn, but admits that some people get corrupted by it in unhealthy ways. He even professes to owning a porn shop, which his excessively naive wife, Rowena (Ritah Parrish), has somehow failed to pick up on, claiming that she doesn't even know what porn looks like.

Rowena's parents are also present. Her mom, Jennifer (April Magnusson), is a throwback from an era when men had the final say in everything. She doesn't like that her husband, Clive (Paul Floding), watches porn openly and exuberantly, but she also doesn't do much about it. Theatre Vertigo handles this rather awkward opening scene (the action is continuously interrupted to pull each character aside for an introductory soliloquy), as well as the clunky play that follows it, with exquisite grace. JoAnne Johnson's direction is fluid, her cast strong and tight. Magnusson is especially good, slipping from her sad, bitter mother, to a host of other distinct characters with often nothing more than a flip of her scarf. All the cast, with the exception of Parrish, play multiple roles, and yet the action never becomes muddled, and always remains highly watchable.

What does become muddled is Daniels' issue, which loses significant resonance in the face of underdeveloped characters. Parrish's Rowena is a wide-eyed fawn, bumbling through the world of porn on spindly legs. She despises it, yes, but seems more fearful of it than angered by it. It is inconceivable that she would commit murder in reaction to it, and yet this is the premise around which the play revolves. Her friend, Yvonne, is quite the opposite; strong in point of view and presence, but with nothing to do. She objects verbally to a few points regarding porn in the first half, and then almost completely fades away.

The men are all cartoonish sleazeballs, reveling in the joys of porn and infidelity. Trevor is the closest to being well-rounded, as he struggles to make both his porn support and his marriage work, but as Plont plays him, he comes off as a surly lout instead of a loving husband who also happens to not mind porn.

In casting the men in such a light, Daniels creates a war between the sexes. Men are evil and women are oppressed. This is probably a true statement, but the issue of pornography is far more complex than that. What about the 99.9 percent of male porn watchers who are perfectly nice, normal human beings (ahem)? What about the strong feminist contingent that ENJOYS porn on a regular basis? Daniels loses such points of view, which makes the issue of porn all the more compelling in the wake of emotional overkill. As the evil characters mount, and the good characters struggle, her central focus changes from a question--what is porn and who are its victims?--to a statement--PORN IS EVIL! The former focus is far more interesting; it makes one think. The latter focus is a melodramatic wolf in a pseudo-intellectual sheep's clothing. JUSTIN SANDERS