There's comedy to spare in Jonathan Harvey's "Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club," this young Liverpool writer's most ambitious play yet, but what is jolting about the occasion is the feeling of nerves scraped raw. For all their campery and bravado, these inhabitants of east London's Rupert Street are linked by a loneliness and need that surfaces once the quotations from "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" and "All About Eve" cease.

There’s comedy to spare in Jonathan Harvey’s “Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club,” this young Liverpool writer’s most ambitious play yet, but what is jolting about the occasion is the feeling of nerves scraped raw. For all their campery and bravado, these inhabitants of east London’s Rupert Street are linked by a loneliness and need that surfaces once the quotations from “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” and “All About Eve” cease.

Indeed, it seems telling that Harvey has written a funny and ultimately wrenching play about love in which not one of the five characters is seen with a lover. Not that lovers, past and present, are absent from either the discussion or the plot. Shaun (Scot Williams), the younger of two working-class Liverpudlian brothers, is awaiting the return from Barbados to his London flat of his mixed-race girlfriend, whose prolonged departure has begun to give him pause. Downstairs neighbor George (Lorraine Brunning) finds reminders everywhere of her ex-boyfriend and trades in her double bed for a single futon so as not to live what she fears is a four-pillow-to-one-bed existence. Marti (Tom Higgins), Shaun’s older, gay brother, has the habit of falling for “people I can’t have”– when, that is, he isn’t inventing partners. He cannot imagine being loved for himself even when a potential mate emerges in club pick-up Dean (James Bowers), a leggy transvestite by night and aggressive McDonald’s employee by day.

Those put off by Harvey’s sour “Boom Bang A Bang” this summer will welcome back the emotional generosity of the playwright’s earlier “Beautiful Thing” and “Babies” (as well as the structural messiness of the latter). At first, it’s difficult to tell where “Rupert Street” is headed, especially since Harvey brings in a fifth character — another neighbor, the mentally unstable Clarine (“like what they put in the swimming baths,” explains Marti) — who proves a badly handled conceit. Though a squeaky-voiced Elizabeth Berrington tries to dignify the part, Clarine induces a wince, whether recounting visitations from Prince Charles, passing herself off as Zoe Wanamaker, or singing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun”; her sudden maturity at the play’s blood-soaked finish is so much wish fulfillment.

The core of the evening lies in the shifting dynamic between Shaun and Marti, the latter of whom is still scarred from a vicious attack seven years before when then-teenaged Shaun discovered Marti was gay. (Shaun gave him 16 bruises, recalls Marti:”one for every year he hated me.”) Shaun’s aches, in turn, are of the present: Why has his Juliet spent four weeks abroad at a funeral from which she was long ago due back? The answer comes in a package intercepted by Clarine whose contents bond the brothers in compassion and grief — and in a closing tableau to the penultimate scene that rocks the intimate Donmar Warehouse.

Under John Burgess’ direction, Williams and Higgins play together thrillingly — like all gifted comics, Higgins understands pathos — in an ensemble that matches in quality the Donmar’s previous visiting production, “Our Boys,” in the spring. Bowers’ Dean, as well, marks a delicious West End debut, his sullenness giving way to show the real decency behind the feathers, heels and attitude.

The play continues on from that natural, organic ending to an additional (and violent) scene that raises the stakes between Shaun and Marti, throwing unexpected new light on their rapport. While the conclusion has undeniable shock value, it’s too imposed to move an audience. By that point, we hardly need Harvey to prove he can write tough when so much of the play’s genuine hilarity arrives clouded by no less authentic pain.

The production transfers next month to the West End’s Criterion Theatre.

Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club

Production

LONDON A Contact Theater Company and English Touring Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Jonathan Harvey. Directed by John Burgess. Sets and costumes, Jackie Brooks.

Crew

Lighting, Gerry Jenkinson. Opened, reviewed Nov. 8, 1995, at the Donmar Warehouse; 252 seats; $:18 ($ 28) top. Running time: 2 HOURS , 50 MIN.

With

Cast: Scot Williams (Shaun), Tom Higgins (Marti), Lorraine Brunning (George), Elizabeth Berrington (Clarine), James Bowers (Dean).
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