The Surrender and Chez Josephine

Laura Campbell in Toni Bentley's The Surrender. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Toni Bentley’s 2004 memoir challenged assumptions. She took control of her soul and her physical self like no one else had done before, and found joy and empowerment through sex that was paid for, massage included. (At least that was my take on it.) The dancer heroine in the one-woman stage production finds her bliss in an obsession with a lover that she shares with a jealous actress known as “the blonde.” This is to say the story has been restyled a bit, not softened. The Surrender is way kinkier than Kinky Boots.

The casting is perfect—the dark-haired Laura Campbell, born in Northern Ireland, wise-cracking, self-mocking, with expert eye contact, holds the audience rapt for nearly an hour and a half without intermission. If another actor were to split the task, say, the legendary lover or the blonde, they would inevitably be duds next to her.

Bentley’s heroine is touching when she confides, “It is so difficult to be one’s self in one’s own sex life.” She had looked for a man who combined “the erotic and the spiritual” but typically found only half of the equation. Inspiringly, she finally got what she wanted sexually after recovering from a hip problem. “Bliss is a post-pain zone,” when “death dies and paradise is entered.” Who knows their body better than a dancer? She gives a biology lesson, turning around the vanity mirror to reveal a diagram of the female body.

Besides being a brilliant Guggenheim-winning writer, Toni Bentley is a former New York City ballet dancer, who co-wrote the sensational 1996 memoir of choreographer Balanchine muse, Suzanne Farrell. No one who reads it forgets that Balanchine proscribed his dancers’ weight-loss diet this way: one apple, halved—all day. The sex life described in The Surrender is of course extreme. Bentley’s play makes a case for that.

Josephine Baker, 1906-1975
The fabulous Baker boys, Jean-Claude and Jarry
Named for the most famous and shocking dancer of Paris in the Jazz Age, who was written about by Hemingway and Janet Flanner, Chez Josephine is right next door to the Harold Clurman Theatre. A riotous scene since it opened in the mid-80s, in a building that originally housed a massage parlor, Chez Josephine offers a French menu with large portions, hot sweet potato fries served in a paper cone, and romantically named cocktails—like A Kiss in the Rain: Tanqueray gin, peach schnapps, Amaretto and cranberry juice.

It seems incredible that two youthful and charming sons of Josephine Baker run Chez Josephine. Jean-Claude and Jarry do her proud, creating a mood that is opulent and unstuffy. There’re chandeliers, candlelight, red velvet drapes, piano music, and naked pictures of mother on every wall. As you depart for the eight o’clock curtain, you might be kissed on each cheek.