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Skin so sacred 

Grimsley links S&M and spirituality In Berlin

There's a saying that goes: "Nothing is more exciting than your own sexual fantasies, or more boring than someone else's." Jim Grimsley's In Berlin delves into S&M fantasies in a way that proves at once remote and intimate. The play, directed by Anders Cato for 7 Stages, tends to be too abstract and confusing to foster much emotional connection to the audience, even as it ambitiously searched for the link between erotic dark sides and spirituality.A well-heeled gay Atlantan named Walter (Brad Sherrill, in his first performance at 7 Stages) begins his sexual odyssey following a messy break-up. Worried about growing old and feeling less alive, he decides to pursue a previously untapped interest in leather sex. To that end, he has a mutual friend hook him up with Kurt (Jim Roof), an Atlantan in Germany with deep connections to the sex trade. Walter offers Kurt and two associates 1,000 marks apiece to stage an S&M show for him.

The plot may seem straightforward enough, but Walter hasn't even left Atlanta by the end of the first act. This is partly because In Berlin also concerns itself with the mindsets of the participants, including Kurt's favorite young "slave" Martin (Theron Schmidt) and an amiable and seasoned dominatrix called Serenity (Donna Biscoe).

Although we tend to learn few concrete facts about the characters, the playwright doesn't hesitate to give them baffling encounters, as when Martin imagines a conversation with his mother. Before leaving America, Walter has a confounding dream scene in which Serenity says, "I thought we should meet before we meet," before taking the guise of Robert, a deceased man who seems to have been Walter's true love. Perhaps these moments have autobiographical inspiration, but they're difficult to decode.

Grimsley also provides strange and extended meditations from a trinity of white-suited figures (Don Finney, Shannon Malone and Michele McCullough), who speak from a platform above the action. The chorus seems to embody the notion that sex can put people in touch with something transcendent, a "Higher Ground" in the words of one of the many traditional hymns the play evokes.

At times the chorus' poetic lines sound like verses of scripture, while in other moments they nearly echo the fetish demons of Clive Barker's Hellraiser movies. With props provided by the leather boutique 4 Skins 2, the play can suggest one of those overly simplistic juxtapositions of the sacred and the profane, like artwork of Andreas Serrano. At the play's climax (no pun intended), Finney preaches while wearing a hat shaped like a bishop's miter as an actor is hoisted up by the ankles at the end of a simulated sex show (shown mostly in shadows that leave little doubt as to the action).

Now and then, In Berlin's notions of higher ideals and lower desires lines up perfectly, as when the hymn "Perfect Submission" takes on a whole new meaning, or when Martin has a conversation with the chorus that nearly makes sense of the entire play. (There's a self-flagellating streak in some religious penitents, but that doesn't seem to be what Grimsley's after.) But while the production is drawn to the rituals of both religion and sadomasochism, its most effective moments are the quiet, human scenes without adornment.

Roof and Schmidt have an amusing moment preparing Kurt's studio for Walter's show, setting up whips and chains like a pair of jaded stagehands. Grimsley captures Kurt and Martin's strange relationship with sensitivity, showing how a moment of companionable affection can instantly give way to the unsettling dynamic of master and servant. Playing a veteran of the sex industry, Roof gives his speeches a convincing world-weariness and gratitude for the freshness that Martin brings.

The dark, industrial trappings of David Coleman's set and the pulsating techno beat in Brian Ginn's sound design evoke that distinctly German kinkiness associated with photographer Helmut Newton. Serenity wonders aloud if Walter is attracted to the city and "the vague air of fascism that still lingers." A scene before the Brandenburg Gate casts Berlin as a place for crossing thresholds, making you wish the play had more such clever "travelogue" moments.

We ultimately don't get a pat explanation of the roots of Walter's sexual quest or where it'll take him. Sherrill helps suggest that it may be borne of misdirected rage or grief, but the play ultimately doesn't give enough clues, and deviant sexuality usually defies a strict definition. With its forbidding structure and airy metaphysical musings, In Berlin often becomes a frustrating treatment of human bondage.

In Berlin plays through Nov. 5 at 7 Stages, 1105 Euclid Ave., with performances Wed.-Thurs. at 7:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 5 p.m. $15-$20. 404-523-7647.

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