Erin Shields’ Soliciting Temptation, premiering now at Tarragon Theatre, was highly anticipated—it’s the first new play since 2010 from the eminent female playwright, known for the Governor General Award-winning If We Were Birds. In some respects, it lives up to the hype. It deals with the difficult, often-overlooked subject of child sex tourism, and it does so thoughtfully and with nuance. The overall experience, though, is somewhat underwhelming, because the compelling ideas explored are undercut by an implausible premise.
(Note: spoilers ahead.) The play opens in a small hotel room in an unnamed, but very hot, Third World country. Man (Derek Boyes) lies on the bed with dark sweat stains on his shirt (this might be the only play in memory in which the actors get drier as the action progresses) and then tinkers with the broken air conditioner and ceiling fan. Midway through a call to the front desk to complain about the heat, he hears a knock at his door and drops everything. Girl (Miriam Fernandes) is there, in a mysterious blue haze, and she enters his hotel room with wide eyes and small steps. As Man tries to cover his uneasiness with dad joke after dad joke (“I’m a sweater. No, not that kind of sweater”), they eventually make their way over to the bed. But, in a brilliantly startling moment, Girl pipes up and reveals she’s not the young girl Man assumed she was. What follows is an exchange between two misguided people, both of whom believe they are doing honourable things and come to realize their misconceptions.
That’s the first major hurdle: accepting any excuse that Man offers to explain his situation. Some of them are obviously intended to sound deluded: “At least it contributes to the local economy.” But even when he reveals the true reason he’s participating in this industry, his reasoning is so deeply flawed that it’s hard to make room for sympathy. Girl’s motivations prove to be more understandable, although they’re the result of flawed judgment and form part of an unrealistic storyline.
Both characters, therefore, prove to be unlikeable—although both are passionately committed to their causes. In the end, the play is fuelled not by the story—although there are number of narrative twists—but by their debate. And as is often the case with two-handers set in one room and taking place in one continuous exchange, the audience is forced to wonder what’s keeping them there. While their argument may be compelling at times, the answer to that question is too often unclear.
Even so, Boyes delivers a believable performance as a father, husband, and businessman facing a nearly insurmountable lack of self-confidence, somewhat overpowering his scene partner Fernandes. Shields proves herself to have a talent for dialogue, and while this venture wasn’t perfect, we’re still full of anticipation for her next piece.