Manwatching (Royal Court Theatre/Tarragon Theatre)

Manwatching explores cis men delving into sexuality from a woman’s perspective, on stage in Toronto

The concept of Manwatching, on now at Tarragon, is both simple and novel: a male comedian reads, sight unseen, a script written by an anonymous woman that reflects on sex with men. There is no doubt that the text of the monologue was not previously released to the comedian who, on opening night, was Arthur Simeon. Simeon stumbled, reread bits to get it right, had authentic expressions of incredulity and surprise, and sometimes seemed to blush — none of which detracted from his delightful stage presence. The concept demands that there be a different performer each night, and the lineup is great. Most of the names are ones I recognize from my habit of listening to CBC Radio comedies, such as The Debaters

The nature of the show demands that it be cis-centric and heterocentric but it was actually less of the latter than I expected. At one point the author begins talking about fantasies involving “a girl wearing glasses” and then about another woman flirting with her, and then pulls it back to say she isn’t going to get into that because this show is about men. So she doesn’t invisibilize queerness as much as purposefully avoid it, in order to focus on the unbalanced power dynamic in heterosexual relationships.

Manwatching addresses how uncomfortable it can be for men to face frank discussions of women’s sexuality, and how patriarchy undermines and oppresses women’s desire and pleasure. The writer examines her past sexual relationships, how — or if — she was attracted to the man in question, how honest she was with him about her attraction and desire, and how entitled he felt to both.

She also does a deep dive into her fantasy life, which was eye-opening for me. I talk about sex more often that your average bear — for a long time I was a host of the the Sex City radio show – and I found at least one of her fantasies surprising. There was another that I admired for its theatricality, and a third that I considered to be pretty regular but that she described as “dark.” People’s fantasy lives are a rich tapestry, and we benefit from hearing about them from people whose gender differs from the majority of R-rated movie directors.

Manwatching is terrifically funny, though possibly less so if you’re someone subject to masculine fragility. If you know a person with this unfortunate condition, I suggest you bring them to this show and laugh loudly while he squirms.

The text is skilfully comedic itself, and I’m sure it would get laughs even if performed by a woman (such as the writer). The conceit of a man reading it — without knowing what words are going to have to come out of his mouth – adds a layer not just of comedy, but also of social critique. When the content swoops from hilarious anecdotes to serious experiences and criticisms of gender inequality, the effort of Simeon to draw those connections was both a pleasure to watch — he was gracious and dedicated — and underlined some of the author’s points, such as how he can’t possibly understand some of these things because he has been socialized as a man.

My friend and I agreed that we would be happy to see every night of the run, to experience what other comedians do with the script. I’m particularly interested to see how it would be different performed by someone who isn’t straight, such as when Gavin Crawford takes on the job on Saturday, November 18th.

But that’s tonight and whatever I’ll be doing, it’s sure to be less fun than seeing Manwatching.

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Photo provided by the company