The actors look vaguely embarrassed at the curtain call for the Gate Theater premiere of “Cuckoos,” and it’s not just the unusual, uh, positions demanded by the play that leave its performers breaking a sweat. An elegantly argued program essay by Peter Hall, the production’s somewhat surprising director, makes a case for Giuseppe Manfridi and the theater of excess that simply isn’t borne out by the 70 minutes of the show itself. In Manfridi’s native Italy, “Cuckoos” likely constituted the same “short, sharp shock” called for early on in the play, when it transpires that the feverishly copulating Tito (Paul Ready) cannot extract himself from older partner Beatrice’s (Kelly Hunter) increasingly achy posterior. (Those with a squeamish disposition should read no further.)
What’s more, not only is the hapless Tito stuck in, as it were, but there is seemingly no controlling the orgasms of a young man for whom even yawning is a turn-on. (Lucky boy.) Before long, even Tito’s newly arrived gynecologist-father Tobia (David Yelland, a Hall regular) has joined the fray and is duly dropping his trousers to reveal his very own “battering ram.” Anyone expecting an Italianate “No Sex Please, We’re British” should be forewarned that the play aspires to Sophocles, not to the genre of sex farce, while the presence of a portentously named heroine calls to mind some less-than-divine comedy.
On Manfridi’s home turf, “Cuckoos” may well work as a penetrating (sorry) metaphor for issues of subjugation, patriarchy, Catholicism and what not, and this is hardly the first laudably intentioned Gate import presumed to have suffered in translation. (Last year’s “Marathon,” by Edoardo Erba, was another.) But one can’t help feeling that Colin Teevan’s English-language version is a one-joke affair inflated — sorry again — with just enough pretensions to the classical canon. I must confess to not buying it for a minute, though tabloid Britain very well might.
If double entendres come (whoops!) feverishly to mind in discussing the play, that’s only because Teevan’s script stays one step ahead of any commentator’s lamest innuendo. “Keep it up,” we are told early on, as the damned ex-Carmelite nun, Beatrice, crawls about under a parachute, the only solution to her dilemma being the “retractor” (!) proffered by the pompous Tobia, a prideful father arrived to “uncork” his son. Before you can say “Oedipus Rex” (or, in the play’s own punning version of things, “Edifice Wrecked”), Tobia and Beatrice are revealed to have a history all their own. That, in turn, barely hints at the intricacies of a narrative embracing patricide, incest and necrophilia on the way to its bloodstained conclusion.
The evening’s talking-point is less Manfridi’s plot, such as it is — rare is the London opening of late that isn’t making a major issue of ejaculation (cf. “Cooking With Elvis” and “Other People” for starters) — than the unexpected participation of Hall, here returning to the type of potentially abrasive “fringe” revelation with which he began his career in the 1950s with “Waiting for Godot.” Still, it would take more than a throwaway remark like “we’re in the endgame now” to link “Cuckoos” to Beckett, no matter how sexually anarchic (if less explicit) the Irishman’s own plays can be.
Working on an intentionally dingy low-ceilinged set by his daughter, Lucy, the senior Hall brings undeniable vigor to a staging that has one foot in realism (the busty centerfold on the wall), another in the kind of visual imagery — the vast parachute — that at least keeps the couple covered for almost the entire play. What Hall can’t do is find the grace notes in a play that doesn’t so much scale exalted heights as submit its characters to various humiliations, which even the gifted Hunter — in the evening’s bravest performance — can’t surmount. (Yelland, for one, is way too starchily English for the role: Where’s Roberto Benigni when you really need him?) “I need a crowbar, not mercy,” says Tito in one of the play’s funniest, tersest lines. “Cuckoos,” by contrast, needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt.