‘Nude/Naked’: Begging For Controversy

Reviewed by Matt Ritchey

There’s been a shooting in the house of a rich and famous 50-something Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Bennett Duquesne. His daughter Addy is at the police station and he’s not allowed to see her, but she’s not being charged and she’s not giving a statement to the police. He owns the gun that went off in the house but is not sure what happened as he wasn’t there at the time. The boy who was shot is still alive, but he’s going to be paralyzed for the rest of his life.

But none of this matters.

This is all preface to when the press discovers Addy is involved and reignites a firestorm that was quelled a decade ago when Bennett photographed then-thirteen-year-old Addy nude/naked. And he’s been doing so consistently ever since. The photography art book of the daughter’s nude/naked photos from ages 13, 14 and 15 was a big seller and very controversial. Now, attention is coming back to this book, to the father and daughter who still do nude photographs sessions, and to the fact that the mother divorced him and moved to Paris years ago.

In Paul Ziedler’s Nude/Naked playing at the McCadden Theater, the feel of the Duquesne house is total realism with a phenomenal set design (Pete Hickok), fine acting (standouts being Jonathan E. Grey and Lucas Alifano), an incredible lighting moment depicting early morning sunlight moving across the floor (Matt Richter), and exceptional writing by director Ziedler. The play is an award-winner, garnering a semi-finalist spot at the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference.

But none of this matters, either.

Because in this play, what matters is the message. According to the main character, “it’s all in the photograph.” Meaning “I’m not going to explain or defend anything, you just need to take from the art what is there.” Very well. What’s ‘there’ in Nude/Naked is a thinly veiled attempt at normalizing predatory behavior under the guise of ‘art.’ And what is billed as “a look at the dangers of mob mentality” and a controversial play dealing with how Art is judged by society comes off as a weak attempt to excuse older men who enjoy naked photos of young girls.

The play makes a mention of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a famous photograph of a cross in yellow water meant to be urine. It also namechecks Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography. These images were, clearly, intended to be controversial. So is this play. Unfortunately, in art and photography, it is often the viewer who can look at an image and decide for themselves what they think of a still moment in time. Even if they take into account the artist’s motives, it is still the viewer wrestling with their own thoughts. In a theatrical production, characters behave, explain themselves, and react. It is possible to create a scenario where the audience is left with an ambiguous play and they can decide for themselves what happened, but that is not what is controversial about Nude/Naked.

Bennett and Addy are swamped by negative publicity unconnected to the shooting as the media refocuses on “their unique, intuitive relationship.” Their lives start to unravel as even Bennett’s gallery drops him. We later learn, while the photographer is going on and on about how his photos of his teenage daughter are not sexual, that Addy was sexually assaulted by her mother‘s boyfriend. And that the photographs of the young 15-year-old girl tied up in bondage pose was, in fact, the daughter’s idea.

To sum up: a father takes nude/naked photos of his thirteen-year-old daughter, she is sexually assaulted (but by a different man!) who tied her to a chair, and now the daughter wants her father to take naked photos of her in bondage. The daughter wants this.

The two of them are interviewed for an arts magazine which they find out in the middle of the interview was recently bought by Rupert Murdoch. Suddenly they are facing conservative questioning of their art. This acts as a weak attack on conservativism from an obviously liberal Hollywood perspective. But what is worse is that the point of view taken by the conservative commentor is whether or not it was a moral or right for an older man to take photos and profit from a naked 13-year-old girl without the girl getting monetary compensation. The response from the main characters is always “it’s about art.“ This seems to be the theme. “It’s art, so it’s OK.” And while the father simply responds “It’s all in the photo,” the daughter comes to his defense and claims responsibility, which the father allows. So, “it’s all in the photo, except when someone is coming to my defense and then I’ll allow discussion.”

When left alone, father and daughter have a playfulness like two young kids in a sandbox. It is a strange relationship, but going with the theme that artists simply see things differently, it might be believable that this 50-year-old man is really a kid at heart and innocent. However, his attitude and demeanor changes when he is around other people. This leads us to believe that he is one person around his daughter, and someone else in public.

We are, of course, given a scene where the 23-year-old strips down so her father can take some artistic photos of her. During this scene, we see the father hesitant and upset – not wanting to do it. This is the only time we see him act this way. Of course, he is drunk/hungover early in the morning and wrestling, for some reason, with his daughter’s sexual assault of seven-odd years ago at this moment. So, the free-spirited naked 23-year-old wants photos taken of her, some in bondage, and it is only then that we see the “responsible male” refusing these wishes. This goes against character. He has spent ten years doing exactly this and it is only the moment in front of the audience where we see him shunning the naked young woman who desperately wants him to take photos of her.

Toward the end, things get so bad for the 50-year-old photographer that the 23-year-old girl decides she is going to go away and leave the country so that he will not have to suffer the indignity of the ruinous bad press any longer. Yes, the young girl is falling on her sword to save the older man.

Ignoring for a moment how the play attempts to normalize what seems to be a very abnormal relationship, it is apparently tone-deaf to our current environment of rape culture and predatory behavior and uses the argument of whether one being “naked” or “nude” is artistic as a way to justify some pretty disturbing behavior. There are no consequences for anyone – the boy who is shot stays paralyzed and never comes back into the story, the rich kid gets off scot-free, and we are left to sympathize with a man who has clearly made no effort in ten years to get his daughter psychiatric help for the things she must be experiencing. There is no one here to sympathize with and while we’re probably supposed to see the main characters as victims, they are in fact 100% to blame for all of their problems… and those problems apparently simply disappear when Addy moves to Paris. We are left at the end with a man and his daughter having been “torn apart by the press” so that they can no longer continue a “unique and intuitive relationship” which ends with them hugging and staring at one another like lovers before blackout.

Ten years ago, this play might have been considered controversial. Today, it’s indulgent tone-deaf mansplaining victimization. NUDE/NAKED is indeed controversial. But it’s on the wrong side of the controversy.

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