My Secret Garden, 45th Street Theatre, New York

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Frank discussion of sex has pervaded mainstream American theatre at least since the arrival 40 years ago of Oh! Calcutta! Truly explicit depictions have had a less frequent workout, perhaps because of the difficulty of making them effective. Such rarity is no surprise: even the most gifted of writers tend to flail about when describing the sex act.

When Nancy Friday assembled real-life women’s sexual fantasies for her 1973 volume My Secret Garden, at least she claimed no literary pretensions. Her aim was to free women from the shameful shackles of their imaginations, even as highbrow critics
unfairly attacked her for stepping up in cultural class. “This woman is not a feminist,” proclaimed a reviewer in Ms magazine, who was put off by the book’s surfeit of rape fantasies. That was one of the nicer notices.

Friday’s volume had the virtue of pulpiness. It exercised no judgment, and it didn’t make the kind of distinctions dear to the semi-prurient, whose view of Friday and her kind could be summarised as: what turns me on is erotic; what turns you on is pornographic.

In the new off-Broadway stage version of My Secret Garden, adapted by Friday and Christopher Scott, such politically correct distinctions are cast aside. One performer plays Friday, and she coaxes stories from a roster of women. Basically, they recite their fantasies – group sex at football games, shagging along the New Jersey turnpike – with a matter-of-factness that would be more refreshing were it not, in 2007, so quaint.

And ill-timed. Over the past decade, since the success of The Vagina Monologues, theatregoers have heard women onstage discuss the joys and pains of the female anatomy with growing regularity. At least My Secret Garden is performed robustly. It has been too easily sneered at by critics who should have a better sense of context. Dismissing women’s fantasies is a luxury enjoyed by those who have never gone without the freedom to express them.
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