Pioneering 1980s sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer was many things, but boring and predictable she was not. Her life was remarkable for the success she forged from consistent setbacks, and her radio and TV shows were as eye-opening as they were entertaining for Reagan-era America.

So it’s quite the disappointment that Triangle Production’s Becoming Dr. Ruth, which runs through February 28, celebrates Dr. Ruth’s story in such a bland and (it must be said) sexless way.

Commanding Portland mainstay Wendy Westerwelle is, unsurprisingly, the main selling point of the one-woman show. Her comedic timing makes the most of the material, she pulls off Dr. Ruth’s iconic German-Israeli accent with panache, and her personality and storytelling chops shine through. 

In short, Westerwelle does all she really can with this pedestrian script from Mark St. Germain. Scene transitions are always a bit awkward in single-actor productions; here they’re nearly excruciating. To keep the story moving, the show resorts to having Dr. Ruth point at assorted props—say, a photograph or ceramic turtle—and serve up a remembrance. The worlds of potential humor afforded by Dr. Ruth’s professional specialty are reduced largely to predictable scenarios and hollow one-liners; you can almost hear the rim shots. Worse, the kitschiness of the script makes even Dr. Ruth’s genuinely tragic backstory—being orphaned by Nazis, then moving to Palestine only to be badly injured during the Israeli War of Independence—play as trite.

If anything, the play (and the laughs it somehow coaxed from the audience) mostly confirmed my suspicion that even in 2015, Dr. Ruth’s legacy is undecided.

On the one hand, it remains true that despite the efforts of pioneers like Dr. Ruth to demystify sex, plenty of people still aren’t comfortable with the topic. In Becoming Dr. Ruth, these hang-ups ironically contribute to the illusion that the play’s dad-joke humor is somehow outrageously hilarious. There’s something like the 50 Shades of Grey effect at play here; in a state of titillated confusion, we’ll excuse any story, no matter how mundane or predictable.

On the other hand, there are those, particularly here in Portland, who will find this story indefensibly, mind-numbingly, behind-the-times. Dr. Ruth did wonderful things for public discourse and sex education in the 1980s, but—contrary to the gist of this production—for most of us these days, she's just not that edgy. From body positivity to hookup culture, our discourse has moved on. Dr. Ruth may well have helped bring about today's new sexual mores and subcultures, but that’s one love connection not made in Becoming Dr. Ruth.

To really get at the heart of Dr. Ruth’s work—and understand why even in 2009, Playboy Magazine ranked her high on its list of America’s “most important people in sex”—you might be better off spending some intimate moments with the her extensive YouTube back catalog.

Becoming Dr. Ruth
Triangle Productions 
Thru Feb 28

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