Midway through the wildly overextended and vulgar exercize in kitsch that is Matthew Bourne’s “The Car Man,” your eyes become increasingly drawn to a pleading-eyed young man in a white T-shirt whose heart — once wounded — can turn blacker than black. And as the confused and smitten Angelo embarks on a psychosexual revenge so intensely acted that it leaves a theatergoer reeling, the Old Vic audience sits up with a jolt: in performer Will Kemp’s take-no-prisoners portrayal, an otherwise dismayingly synthetic pastiche finds a much-needed exemplar of truth.
Not a moment too soon, frankly, given the inevitably exalted degree of anticipation that has greeted director-choreographer Bourne’s first new dance-theater piece in three years — and his first since winning, deservedly so, two 1999 Tony Awards for “Swan Lake.” (Another first: “The Car Man” is Bourne’s maiden show in the theater that will be the home of his adventuresome troupe, starting in 2002 — namely, the jewel-like Old Vic.)
But unlike his landmark concoction, which seemed wrenched from somewhere deep within its creator, “The Car Man” at best gives off the whiff of an elaborate lark concocted in the heady adrenalin rush of success. At its dispiriting worst, the same show reads as the outpouring of a talented man of ideas in real need of an editor who might — among other things — have suggested that two hours is a lot of time to spend building up to a conclusive, and leadenly unfunny, ironic jape: “Harmony,” indeed. (The import of the word becomes clear in context.)
After all, you needn’t know that Bourne reconceived “Swan Lake” for an all-male corps de ballet or, in 1997, relocated “Cinderella” amid a wartime, Blitzed-out Britain to intuit at once from Lez Brotherston’s neon-flecked, decidedly louche design that “The Car Man” is “Carmen,” with a twist. (The show begins, William Forsythe-style, with the company onstage, already in full animated flow.) Instead of the sultry environs of Seville, the locale is a fetid backwater called Harmony in the American Midwest with Bizet’s cigarette girl reinvented as a hunky Marlboro Man drifter, Luca (Alan Vincent). And while Bizet’s music plays, albeit as filtered through Rodion Shchedrin’s exciting Bolshoi ballet version of it (as buttressed by composer Terry Davies), a heat-fueled tale ensues of ineluctable love and loss and an eventually sizable body count.
Like “Swan Lake,” “The Car Man’s” narrative is driven by rejection, as a wild-eyed Angelo lashes out at the swaggering stud, Luca, who dared to love him — or, more accurately, lust after him — and then up and leave. (Among other things, Bourne here waves a cautionary finger at bisexual men. Stray from the hetero fold, his story suggests, at your peril.) But unlike Bourne’s predecessors in the repertory for his Adventures in Motion Pictures (AMP) company, his rewrite of “La Sylphide” as “Highland Fling” included, the new show rarely taps into the wounding emotional realm that makes Bourne far more than a cheeky parodist, however classical his sources. Instead, there’s a lot of bumping and grinding in search of that real pulse that would shift “The Car Man” away from its rather overdetermined status as a staged film noir and into a breathless new genre all its own. (For all its overt affinities to “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” incidentally, the plot echoes nothing so much as “Fatal Attraction” gone gay — and minus the bunny.)
A richer choreographic palette might allay a growing sense of desperation as the onstage writhing increases in inverse proportion to the heat being generated. Barely has the show begun before its male dancers are shedding clothes and snapping towels, while an early shower scene seems de rigueur these days for theatrical occupants of the Cut, the Waterloo site where AMP’s welcome new home is located — director David Lan’s production of “Julius Caesar” down the street at the Young Vic reportedly features two.
But as the National’s misbegotten stage version of Tennessee Williams’ “Baby Doll” earlier this year already proved, it’s not enough to feign sex; you have to give off sensuality, which only Kemp — among the opening-night principals (the production features three rotating casts, including Kemp doubling as Luca) — manages to do, not least because he can really act. On this evidence, that cannot be said of Vincent, whose programmatic sultriness as the surly Luca is matched by the faintly waxen Lana of Saranne Curtin, playing the garage owner’s wife whom Luca exists, of course, to seduce. As the cuckolded Dino, the town of Harmony’s seediest (and most apparently fart-prone) entrepreneur, AMP veteran Scott Ambler is perplexingly over the top and wasted, too; as “Swan Lake” admirers will know, for all Tony nominee Adam Cooper’s allure in the flashiest role, that production was anchored by an achingly beautiful contribution from Ambler, who is sadly debased here.
To be sure, many may be taken in by Bourne’s ceaselessly busy stage, in which a cakewalk and hoedown feature amid a hip-swivelling athleticism that recalls nothing so much as “Grease.” (At the same time, the women are shockingly shortchanged, with Bourne’s choreography for them barely perfunctory.) At times, “The Car Man” offers glimpses of what Bourne might have provided for “Oklahoma!,” had he not bowed out of Trevor Nunn’s production to be replaced by Susan Stroman. Elsewhere, a nod to Martha Graham elicits mostly unknowing and quizzical stares. But whereas Bourne in the past has drawn eclectically from numerous sources, wrapping them all in a cunning aesthetic embrace, “Car Man” plays like a show twice its natural length — the same piece might make a scintillating one-act — whose influences have yet to mesh. It’s got simulated heat to spare; what it needs now is a heart.