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The Joy of Socks: 'Psychopathia Sexualis'

John Patrick Shanley’s new play is a fetishistic feat

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The characters in John Patrick Shanley’s plays hurl verbal spears at each other as potent put-downs or poetic expressions of love. But in his hotly anticipated new play, Psychopathia Sexualis, they trade something more tangible: argyle socks.

Running through April at the Manhattan Theatre Club, the comedy stars Andrew McCarthy as Arthur, a New York painter who can’t make love without his father’s argyles nearby. On the eve of his wedding to Lucille (Park Overall), Arthur seeks help from Howard (Daniel Gerroll) because his shrink (Edward Herrmann) has stolen his socks.

The inspiration for Psycho Sex, as Shanley calls it, came from a turn-of-the-century book about sexual fetishes. ”Fetishism leapt out because you can throw something around the stage that is somebody’s sexuality,” says the lanky, affable playwright during a break from rehearsals. ”Everybody has some nonlinear connection with their sexuality. Fetishists have a physical representation of it.”

The venturesome Psycho Sex is his first full-length show since 1993’s Four Dogs and a Bone, a scathing satire in which a writer dabbling in Hollywood falls into a vortex of vanity and cash. In reality, the 46-year-old Bronx, N.Y., native — who gained fame with 1984’s tender-tough play Danny and the Deep Blue Sea — is a screenwriting success (with a 1988 best-screenplay Oscar for Moonstruck). After Four Dogs, he adapted two ”behemoths” for director Frank Marshall: Piers Paul Read’s Alive and Michael Crichton’s Congo. Crichton’s book, he notes, was ”primary colors, finger painting! Great images, but it didn’t make sense.”

His new play’s themes of ”social covenants” are closer to home. ”I was having a midlife crisis and was interested in the unequal friendships among men, one guy lording it over the other,” he says. ”You know how snakes live in their skin, then the skin dies and it’s time to slide out? When that happens in my life, I celebrate it by going after the guy I was with a hammer.”

For Andrew McCarthy — whom Shanley tapped after spotting the actor on a Greenwich Village street — the writer’s world is a welcome challenge. ”John’s plays are more difficult than they seem, because they border on the ridiculous,” he says. ”They have to be played in a life-and-death way, since they’re a twist away from reality.”

But that’s where Shanley spies the deeper issues, ”like raising theater to poetic levels without losing the world. I’m always trying not to get airy. Not to lose the earth.” Not to mention his socks.