SOLICITING TEMPTATION by Erin Shields (Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman). Runs to May 4, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Sunday and April 19 and 26 at 2:30 pm. $21-$53, $13 rush Friday and Sunday. 416-531-1827. See listing. Rating: NNN
A white, middle-aged businessman (Derek Boyes) waits anxiously in a Third World two-star hotel room.
It's not just the broken air conditioner and fan that make him hot and nervous, though. He's waiting for a young native woman, possibly a child (Miriam Fernandes), he's purchased for the evening. There's a tentative knock at the door.
That's the intriguing set-up for Erin Shields's Soliciting Temptation, a look at child prostitution that has its moments of tension, sexual and otherwise, but doesn't come together as a full theatrical experience.
Once the two are together, it takes only a short time for the man to discover that the woman is more than she seems. The conversation that follows involves his daughter, her parents and whether each of them has been in a similar situation previously.
To say more would unleash a series of spoilers, but it's safe to say that as we learn more about the two unnamed characters, there's material for arguments, discussions and revelations on both sides.
The shifting power dynamics works much of the time, but despite the strength of much of the writing, it's as if we're watching separate scenes where the action builds and then rests, only to move off again in another direction. The confidence of one character rises and falls; each in turn goes on the attack and patronizes the other in some fashion. The script needs something more to hold its ideas together.
Still, its moments of poetry and others of intense confrontation make the show worth seeing. It's especially memorable at points that suggest we're privy to fantasy rather than reality, overhearing thoughts and desires rather than spoken words.
Among the production's strengths are the performances of Boyes and Fernandes, who under Andrea Donaldson's direction set up and maintain the dramatic stakes. Some of the tension they generate comes from their size differences. He towers over her, but Fernandes, a staunch opponent, gives as good as she gets.
They're helped by Thomas Ryder Payne's sound design, which conjures up the heat, noise and crowded city outside the room, Kimberly Purtell's atmospheric lighting and Ken Mackenzie's set, which projects the tiny room's bed out into the audience, seated in a V-shape on two sides of the action.
That turns us into voyeurs, watching the intended seduction and the fights that ensue, sometimes revealing someone's vivid expression and at others presenting an unreadable back.