The title, “Not a Game for Boys,” is the only cumber-some aspect of Simon Block’s debut play in which three men meet for a table tennis championship only to find that the game is up, in every sense. Ping-pong may not seem the most obvious of theatrical battlegrounds, but this is no ordinary first play. Block has a gift for comedy, and for character, and Richard Georgeson’s terrific production scores every point. The evening is the best imaginable (unofficial) start to the fall theater season.
Male bonding in various forms has been a familiar topic on London stages of late, and “Not a Game for Boys” sometimes feels like the play Patrick Marber’s concurrent West End “Dealer’s Choice,” a dark cfomedy about poker, wants to be and isn’t. Three minicab drivers converge at a table tennis club for a championship match and realize that they cannot leave real life outside. (Nettie Edwards’ detailed saloon set rewards close attention, not least the charts drolly recording the ping-pong prowess of the Royal Court staff.)
Oscar (Peter Wight), the loner of the trio, is spooked by the sudden death of fellow club member “fat Derek,” and yearns to abandon the game altogether in favor of something calmer, like bridge. Team captain Eric (Christopher Fairbank) is permanently tethered by mobile phone to a nagging wife and incontinent mother. Youngest player Tony (Neil Stuke) — “I’m only 29 and three-quarters,” he says defensively — buries his fraught domestic life, and frustrations with London traffic, in adulterous pickups in the back of his cab. For all three, the weekly 45 minutes of ping-pong offer escape, though not necessarily release; it’s a time when, as Eric puts it, the men are “beyond the reach of everything else” — except their own emotions.
Block writes each character a moment of reckoning without making them any wiser than they need be, and much of the talk is both hilarious and revealing. Tony is worried about what his wife might think of his backseat assignations. The fevered Eric, the one to whom the game matters most, wants to be taken seriously as a “human being person” even as he draws the poignant distinction in his life between having a house but not a home. The solitary Oscar may or may not be a “shirtlifter” — English slang for gay — but the truth is more complex , and his attempt to explain his chosen life to Tony is a beautiful moment, perfectly captured by Wight.
Georgeson’s direction nails every shift of mood, as does a cast whose collective ease makes equally vivid those characters talked about but never seen — Eric and Tony’s women; the opponents the men must beat to avoid relegation to a lower division; even the 9-year-old attacker who pushes Tony that final step too far. Though the title alone over-announces his theme, Block shows the true threat posed by relegation. This is a play about people who refuse to be marginalized, written by a newcomer clearly ready for the big time.