Nick Grosso suffers the not uncommon second-play slump with his new “Sweetheart,” arriving in the same studio theater where his terrific “Peaches” 14 months ago signaled a quirky new voice. Not helped by a production as fuzzy and unfocused as “Peaches” was sharp, the new work is too inconsequential to be seriously trying, but it leaves a sour aftertaste considerably longer than the play itself.
The contours of this play seem almost identical to its forebear, and Roxana Silbert’s production employs many of the same devices — classical music interludes, projections announcing place and time (“NW1, 1 p.m.”) — that made James Macdonald’s earlier staging such a tonic. (David Roger designed both.) Like “Peaches,” “Sweetheart” focuses on a young man roaming London from partner to partner and yet uninterested in any of them or, indeed, in life: “I’m trying to find myniche,” he explains, and one is right not to be convinced. Charlie (Joe Duttine) is a modern equivalent of Michael Caine’s celebrated Alfie some three decades ago, though his post-adolescent male maneuvering may remind Americans, at least, of the early work of Howard Korder.
The problem here is one of tone. Whereas “Peaches” was breezy enough to make its deeper points almost glancingly, “Sweetheart” seems both repetitive and contrived, as if Grosso — having hit on a suitable template for a ’90s antihero — were unsure what to do next.
When first seen, Charlie, a young man of limited ambition but supposedly limitless allure, is putting the make on TV casting assistant Ruby (Diane Parish) somewhere in Camden Town. His own girlfriend, Toni (Kate Beckinsale), prefers sleep to Charlie’s company, so Charlie drifts instead toward Kelly (Nicola Walker), who invites him to join a group on a weekend in Wales. (Their encounter with a local, whom Charlie surveys glumly, is a mistake.)
By play’s end, Charlie is left in the one position he knows: on the bed, legs spread in anticipation.
“You’re everyone’s honey, everyone’s sweetheart,” Charlie is told, but an audience, frankly, is unlikely to agree. Partly, Duttine lacks the casual appeal and charm that made Ben Chaplin’s Frank in “Peaches” the kind of twentysomething you adore and mistrust at once; Duttine’s not likeable.
The writing, too, stumbles. It’s one thing to revel in Charlie’s dimness — he says “fiesta” when he means “siesta” and thinks Robert De Niro starred in “Crocodile Dundee” — and another to script exchanges (one about the inefficacy of studying English in England) that say more about an overreaching author than about the character. The suggestion that Charlie’s obtuseness is an act remains a red herring.
The vignettes gather no cumulative weight. While Charlie wears his anger closer to the surface than the equally bewildered Frank in “Peaches” (the world, Charlie decides, is “bollocks”), his indecision mainly arouses indifference. The clear standout among the cast is Walker’s Kelly, not just because the actress is vivid and fresh but also because Grosso nails her character almost at once; it’s the blank-faced Charlie who remains a blank.