You don’t have to be politically correct to hate “The Bed Before Yesterday,” though it will certainly hasten your response to the sniggering and ferociously sexist Ben Travers comedy that has been inexplicably revived by the Almeida. Over the past years, this theater has specialized in reclamations from the classical repertoire (its “Medea,” with Diana Rigg, is now on Broadway) and adventurous new scripts, so how this slipped through the net is anyone’s guess.
Does the Almeida management seriously think this play needs a second airing, or has it been included with a cynical eye on a West End transfer? If the latter , think again. While Travers’ view of women and sex might have seemed droll in 1975, when “Bed Before Yesterday” made some kind of history as a premiere by a writer then age 89 (!), time has not been kind. It’s the kind of play the student Carol in “Oleanna” might haul before a tribunal even as it makes Carols of us all.
Why such indignation toward an ostensibly innocuous sex farce? Because this one mean-spiritedly breaks the rules of the genre, and Peter Wood’s production, seen at a preview, doesn’t help. On the one hand, Travers has a setup almost in the style of Moliere: The wealthy middle-aged Alma (Brenda Blethyn) swears off sex only to succumb rabidly to lust. But at the same time, the details of the play are far too realistic, at least in 1994, for the hermeticism required by farce.
Not only does Alma recall her wedding night as a rape, but she ends the play recounting an incident on vacation in which, half-naked and waiting for sex, she is robbed by a brutish Italian. It’s not the rosiest picture of men, but Alma and her invisibly slavering creator don’t care.
In Travers’ mind, women are either frigid or whores, endlessly randy or repressed. The connection between sex and affection never occurs to anyone because it hasn’t occurred to Travers; this is the sort of play in which a woman returns home unexpectedly to find her husband at the start of an affair, only to make use of the erection he intended for someone else. No wonder all the Maggie Smith mannerisms available to her can’t lend Blethyn a way into the part: The character defies logic, and Blethyn’s innate intelligence and charm merely expose the insensitivity of the scenario.
“The Bed Before Yesterday” is at its best in its opening scene before Travers’ carnal position is made clear; the ceremonies of courtship are cleverly goosed, a memorable discussion about pouring tea chief among them. Alma invites the widower Victor (Charles Kay) into her elegant mews house for “agreeable company” on the condition that they occupy separate bedrooms and he keep away his boorish son, Aubrey (Paul Reynolds). The collapse of both conditions of course allows for the play, as Alma finds her erotic antithesis in Aubrey’s friend Ella (Jacqueline Defferary), who is being pressed into prostitution.
This subplot is as cheap as the stormy sound effects punctuating the second act, although Reynolds’ Aubrey succeeds in being as obnoxious — and then some — as Alma is meant to find him.
The characteristic elegance of Almeida physical productions eludes designer Johan Engels here, whose cream-colored set sits as awkwardly in the space as the play does in the Almeida lineup.
Last December, this theater opened a truly searching version of an earlier work about cloistered sexuality, Moliere’s “School for Wives.” But while that centuries-oldplay seemed fully up-to-the-minute, it’s one of the ironies of the theater to make something 19 years old look positively antique.