2015 Capital Fringe Review: ‘Brothel’

Playwright Isa Seyran has told forthrightly the origin story of Brothel: Reading about the extreme gender imbalance of men to women in North Dakota resulting from an oil boom thanks to fracking, Seyran was inspired to write a play set in an imaginary small-scale legal brothel there that would supply the men with fucking. Seyran claims no first-hand knowledge of prostitution in North Dakota—where in fact it is criminalized, for both buyer and seller—though he does tell of personal familiarity with the operation of legal brothels in his native Turkey (presumably not as a service provider).

original- (5)Watching the resulting six-character play—whose gender equipoise features one pimp, one john, one male health inspector, and three women in prostitution—I found myself reminded of Bertholt Brecht, who made up from whole cloth a play set in a 1930s Chicago peopled with mobsters and gangsters, although he had not yet set foot outside Europe. Brecht did so (in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a satirical allegory about the rise of Hitler) with a political purpose and viewpoint; he was not writing fourth-wall naturalism. Thus as I watched Seyran’s script play out, in a quite Fringe-servicable production that he himself directed, I kept listening to his text not for verisimilitude (his characters bear virtually no relationship to the reality of their roles in the actual sex industry) but for Seyran’s purpose and point of  view.

I cannot say that I discerned any such, other than a prostitution proponent’s propensity to justify the buying and selling of bodies for sex with a marketplace, supply-and-demand argument that pivots on phallic imperative. In his program note he quotes Hal, his pimp character, saying, “It is not my fault that God created men, gave them penises and put this unstoppable desire in them to put their penises into whatever hole they can find.”  Variants of that perspective recur throughout, always taken at face value, notably given voice by each of the female characters (“Pussy is the best currency in human civilization,” says Val at one point. Su, who is an Asian imigrant, translates the word prostitution in her homeland as “happiness providing” and comes to her career in this country with a diploma from a school for sex workers, which Hal at one point argues there should be in the U.S.).

If Seyran had something more in mind than pro-prostitution agit prop, this reviewer could not fathom what it was. Advance promotion for the show promised, in Sevran’s words, “a very serious drama with some heavy themes and undertones” and, in the press release’s words, “a new play that explores the question of what is at the deepest core of men and women…an unexacting [sic] look at human nature.” What I perceived instead was an awkwardly structured script that required the actors to lurch without perceptible motivation or thematic unity from speech to speech and scene to scene. For instance there’s a sudden catfight that erupts out of nowhere between the older Val, who has been pimped by Hal for many years (loyally, we are given to understand), and a new arrival, the younger, more kink-friendly Rosa, whom Hal wants to pimp as well. Abruptly Hal becomes the caring and consoling referee between two warring whores. Early on Hal’s character is established as that of a pimp with a heart of gold (hey, this is theater, where anything can happen), yet later Hal seriously contemplates pimping out his wife, who is mother of his two young children and pregnant with a third.

To their credit the actors gave this muddle of a script a good go, particularly Ned Read as Hal, who deserves a better role in a better play, and Pimmie Juntranggur as Su, who bursts on stage with formidable energy and absconds with her scene. Also in the cast were Adrian Iglesias as George the health inspector, whose new-to-the-job ineptness had charm; Sally Roffman as aging hooker Val, who found touching poignance in the part; Brian Lewadowski as Val’s favorite customer, Isaac, who played nice guy credibly if improbably; and Lauren Patton as Rosa, who did sexpot spitfire just fine.

Running Time: One hour 25 minutes with no intermission.

Brothel plays through July 25, 2015, at Logan Fringe Arts Space: Trinidad Theatre – 1358 Florida Ave NE Washington, DC 20002. For schedule of performances and to purchase tickets, go to their Capital Fringe page.


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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


  1. The play revolves around the lives of Hal an owner of a small brothel and Val an aging prostitute who has worked with Hal for 15+ years. Hal and Val have a sort of chemistry – they care for each other but bicker, amuse, frustrate each other. Given Val’s age, they must face the inevitable (which drives at least some of the plot) which causes both Val/Hal to assess their decisions/choices they have made and looking for possibilities in an uncertain future… The young Asian actress, Su, is also very good – she is the younger prostitute. And Val’s favorite John and a health inspector and Rosa are part of the play. Isa, the writer, also seems to be asking larger questions about the role of prostitution in society. Prostitution “seems” to exist in one form or another in the majority of societies (not an area of my expertise or knowledge) a. why is this? and b. how should we judge or think about prostitution …. Lastly, the play is a dramatization of prostitution – it is not trying to explore the realities of street hookers, abusive pimps… In fact the play employs comic relief throughout. I gave the play 5 stars, but it at a minimum deserves 4-stars. I have been going to the fringe festival for six years or so.


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