The audience hasn’t long been seated at “Love and Understanding,” the absolutely terrific new play from a young writer, Joe Penhall (who here takes a quantum leap forward), before both a collective smile and a shudder sweep through the theater. Why suchvaried reactions, arrived at virtually simultaneously? The answer rests in a central character, Paul Bettany’s Richie, whom you know you shouldn’t like and yet you do. This complicated response is crucial to a play some will dismiss as one more houseguest-from-hell scenario, though that is to sell short the real cunning and stagecraft of the dramatist previously hailed for the far less mature “Pale Horse” and “Some Voices” at the Royal Court.
Beyond the menage a trois of sorts that drives the evening is a saddening essay on dystopia: not so much paradise lost as the more bluntly put “Who cares?” That question is Richie’s mantra when we first meet him, a hack journalist returned to England after an extensive trip away. On the outs with his parents and the girlfriend whom he cheerfully talks of having hit, Richie arrives at the flat of good friend Neal (Nicolas Tennant), a doctor who runs an intensive-care unit at a National Health Service hospital. Neal’s live-in partner, Rachel (Celia Robertson), also a doctor, is nursing her own professional angst, tired of treating “the asthma and angina of chain smokers.”
Neal and Rachel are considering marriage, but it is in the nature of charismatic leeches like Richie that he is the one to whom the pair become psychologically tied. Lacking either funds or a planned departure date, Richie slowly takes over their lives, appealing to the same qualities in them that he likes to mock. A self-confessed member of “the culture of resignation,” Richie can’t fathom Neal’s idealism even though he is well aware that his tolerated presence owes not a little to that virtue. (Later, he will owe his life to it, since his drug-induced coma puts their rapport to the ultimate test.)
Both members of the couple, in turn, find in Richie’s casually destructive hedonism a (mostly unspoken) release. A man who lives by the conviction that fun is wherever he is not, Neal admires the devil-may-care lifestyle of his errant friend; for Celia, it’s enough that Richie manages to persuade her to take a day or two off. Richie’s seduction of Celia (by act two she is defending him to Neal as “just lovely”) is as inevitable as it is disturbing, and the resulting wounds leave a sting that is only one of many ways in which Penhall makes a potentially familiar dangerous liaison into something truly fresh.
Being the occasion’s resident Satan, the louche Richie naturally has the best lines, and Bettany’s star-making performance captures the necessary air of aristocratic dissipation (he’s a natural if anyone ever revives “Another Country”), down to the soiled chinos and the linen jacket he wraps protectively around him. (The ace costumes are by Es Devlin, doubling as designer of the spare, supple set.) Able to shut out whatever he doesn’t want to hear, Richie exerts the same power to cajole within the play that Bettany does on an audience. It’s to the actor’s credit that the audience forestalls the obvious question, Why don’t they just ask Richie to leave?
Life, of course, is not that simple, as Bush artistic director Mike Bradwell’s extraordinarily alert production makes all too clear. As the pair whose moral propriety is put under the microscope, Tennant and Robertson quietly suggest the shifting sands of a relationship altered forever by a friend to whom they are finally able to bid farewell. It’s not just that Neal takes up smoking and thinks of going abroad, two prospects alien to the Neal who began the play. More woundingly, it’s that this onetime seeker of truth can no longer be bothered to ask any question other than “Who cares?” Anyone who does care about contemporary English drama is urged to beat a hasty path to the Bush.