What's in a name? Well, quite a lot if the name in question is either Shopping and Fucking, which has its North American premiere Feb. 2 at the New York Theatre Workshop, or Never Whistle While You're Pissing, a world premiere production that opened Jan. 24 at Seattle's Group Theatre.
Although the plays are as different as night and day in subject matter -- Shopping and Fucking, by the young British playwright Mark Ravenhill, paints a vivid and disturbing picture of Gen X-ers in an uncaring society, while Never Whistle While You're Pissing, by Carlos Murillo, the winner of the 1996 National Hispanic Playwrighting Award, is described as a "satirical thriller about a young man who races against fate to solve the mystery that threatens to unravel the family" -- they have a common denominator: The chief daily newspapers in both cities refuse to print the plays' full titles.
The New York Times -- in both advertising and editorial copy -- is using Shopping and . . . when referring to Ravenhill's play.
According to the NY Daily News (Feb. 13), the theatre magazine InTheater nearly had this week's issue pulled from Georgia and North Carolina because a story about Shopping and Fucking lay within. Retailers refused to sell it without the kind of plain brown wrapper used for Playboy and Penthouse - even though the show's title wasn't mentioned on the cover. (The title, fully written, was on the table of contents page.) Publisher Michael Parker told the Daily News that wholesalers changed their minds, Feb. 12, and allowed distribution of the publication (although two valuable sale days have already been lost).
Meanwhile, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is doing one thing when it comes to advertising the Murillo play and another in regard to editorial content: The paper is running feature articles that spell out the word "Pissing" but using censored ads that refer to the play as Never Whistle While You're P!@&*$! (The full title, incidentally, comes from a wartime warning to soldiers to remain alert and to draw as little attention to themselves as possible.) When Shopping and Fucking first opened in London last season, the Times of London modified the moniker to Shopping and F***ing (which is also how it appears on the cover of the published playscript), while some of the more traditionally liberal publications such as Time Out printed the play's complete name -- as Time Out New York and New York Magazine are now doing.
Randy Lichtenwalner, director of development at the New York Theatre Workshop, said in a recent phone interview that the theatre has used the play's full title as much as possible on posters, programs and flyers ("to set up accurate ions about subject matter for prospective audience members"). The main exception to the "spell out" rule, he said, has been the theatre's direct market campaign, which uses asterisks a la the London Times. "After all, it is an unsolicited piece of mail," says Lichtenwalner.
There have been other plays with sexually explicit titles -- The Vagina Monologues and Kafka's Dick come immediately to mind -- yet none seems to have caused quite as much of a stir as Shopping and Fucking. The title of the play "is both provocative and mischievous," Max Stafford Clark, who directed the world premiere of Shopping and Fucking and who is co-directing the New York production, said in a phone interview from his London office. "No one comes unless they're prepared for what follows."
Interestingly, the title has turned out to be somewhat less of a tempest in a teapot than a bit of dialogue from the play in which one of the characters described having sex with the Princess of Wales and Sarah Ferguson. After Diana's death in an auto crash, the scene became problematic.
"The day after Diana's death changes were made in the script so that it's now a fantasy sex scene with Fergie alone," said Stafford-Clark. "Poor Fergie."