February 14, 2010

Serenading Louie, Donmar Warehouse

2 stars


Admittedly, not many people in the UK have heard of Lanford Wilson, the American playwright whose 1970 play, Serenading Louie, is currently being shown at the Donmar. Based on the evidence of last night, it’s not absolutely clear why we should have heard of him either. Serenading Louie is a meandering presentation of two decade-long marriages, both of which are going down the toilet. According to Alex, it’s because his somewhat unstable wife Gabby is sex-mad apparently, so much so that he feels “castrated by his own wife”. For Carl it’s because his wife, Mary, is having an affair with her husband’s company’s accountant and – it seems – also with Alex, but, unlike in his youth, Carl can’t even summon up the energy to care. Over the course of the two-hour play, we see the couples on their own, not communicating, one trying desperately to facilitate some contact, the other resolutely avoiding their spouse, and both taking refuge in other aspects of their lives to distract from their marriages. In the second half, the couples get together for drinks at Mary and Carl’s, and muse about the past, their rosy high-school days, and when they first got together. As Mary rather astutely says in one of the rare moments of insight in the play, “I didn’t love Carl then but I love Carl then now”. The play abounds with anti-feminist attitudes, male “business” talk, and rather crude glimpses into the secrets that these couples have.

In a plethora of American plays about disintegrating marriages in the face of unattainable aims, and the disillusion that comes with this, Lanford Wilson’s work does nothing to carve out new territory and has, frankly, very little to recommend it even in isolation. For the majority of the play, you feel that you are sitting in on a very dull dinner party of drunk, brash Americans, who are reminiscing about people you don’t know and aren’t really worth reminiscing about anyway, and occasionally indulging their nostalgia by breaking into old college songs (hence the play’s title). It is like Edward Albee on Calpol, and the play becomes an aimless extended dialogue between the four characters about where it all went wrong.

Which is all the more unfortunate when you consider the brilliant acting talent on show here. Indeed, it’s rare to see such four such polished performances. Jason Butler Harner makes an excellent Alex, weasel-like in his deceitfulness, scarily emphatic in his criticisms of his wife, and turning into a chaotic, hair-tugging mess at the end as his affair with a seventeen-year-old is discovered. Charlotte Emmerson as his trusting and somewhat juvenile wife gives this difficult part a husky charm, coping especially well with the rather random cluster of subjects she has to cover in a monologue at the start, and Geraldine Somerville plays Mary as a steely, controlling woman with an ice-like presence and poised assuredness. The rapport between the four actors is inspiring and most convincing. I felt sorry for them being lumbered with such a lethargic and clichéd script.

Simon Curtis’s direction is mostly good, although I feel his overall spatial concept doesn’t quite work. Peter McKintosh’s ‘70s living room set is very appealing and acts as the home for both couples, with their separate existences drawing closer and closer towards the end so that the space becomes almost without walls. With this superficially realistic set, however, the occasional moments when characters have to step out of the situation and address the audience directly for a fleeting line only jar. “You’ll probably remember this” Carl has to suddenly say to an audience member in the middle of an otherwise wholly realistic scene. Whether we are supposed to be participants in this drama or onlookers I’m not sure, and this only leads to the overall sense of this play having very little clarity. Maybe Curtis could have experimented with a more minimalist set and experimented with lighting and other more abstract effects to make this play feel less of a schizophrenic drawing-room drama and more of a study of time and space. The characters stepping out of character maybe only three times in the play – and only for a line at a time – felt as peculiar and alienating to me as if Willy Loman had come out at the end of Death of a Salesman to throw sweets to the audience.

The Americans, we know, like their epic drama. We have only to look at the fantastic success that was August: Osage County last year, along with older American works that Kevin Spacey has been staging at the Old Vic, to appreciate that. But unfortunately, Lanford Wilson’s play is an epic without an epicentre, and consequently, this lends itself to a very tedious evening.

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