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"Hot 'n' Throbbing" at Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage.

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Last fall's Theatre Gym production of Paula Vogel's "How I Learned to Drive" was a high point in recent Richmond theater history. With its explication of a long-term incestuous relationship, "Drive" used one of society's biggest taboos as fodder for excellent entertainment: funny, fascinating and effective.

Since "Drive" won the Pulitzer Prize, the theater world has wondered what Vogel would come up with next. The answer arrived this month with the premiere of "Hot 'n' Throbbing" at Washington's Arena Stage. If you want to see this challenging new play, I'd suggest hopping a train to D.C. because I can't imagine a theater in town with both the cash and the cojones to bring it here.

The show is a penetrating exploration of dysfunctional family dynamics that mixes hilarious commentary on sex and pornography with a harrowing portrayal of domestic violence. It tells the story of Charlene (Lynda Ferguson) who is trying to raise two teen-agers, recover from an abusive marriage, and make a living by writing screenplays for "adult" films. In the clever early scenes, Charlene tries only moderately successfully to defend her vocation in the face of her children's budding sexual curiosity. Into this already highly charged environment barges Clyde (Colin Lane), Charlene's hot-and-bothered ex-husband. His appearance sends the play cascading through turns alternately comic and creepy before the intense denouement.

As with "Drive," Vogel creates an original narrative style, this time using the language of movie production to splice flashbacks and fantasy sequences into the action of the play. Unfortunately, "Hot 'n' Throbbing" falls into a trap "Drive" skillfully avoided, ending up too nakedly a "message play" with a simplistic moral. It's also hampered by an erratic and inept performance by Lane. Even so, this is stunning and inventive theater, the likes of which only Vogel seems able to provide.

"Hot 'n' Throbbing" plays at Washington's Arena Stage through Oct. 17. Tickets are $27 - $45. Call (202) 554-9066 for

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