A new Hampstead Theater regime gets off to a dispiriting start with “The Maths Tutor,” a play that would seem an unwelcome throwback even if it weren’t designed (by Patrick Connellan) with a severe geometry — lots of intersecting squares and rectangles — evoking dreary ’60s chic. Once a Royal Court mainstay, playwright Clare McIntyre takes an unexpected step backwards with this newest effort, and, inaugurating Anthony Clark’s new tenure as Hampstead a.d., Clark’s own irredeemably stagey production scarcely helps. McIntyre’s best hope is to tap into whatever tabloid hysteria is still simmering in Britain over the ever-emotive issue of pedophilia. More rational observers will be dismayed by an evening that comes across as standard-issue TV movie of the week shot through with shards of “The Children’s Hour.”
McIntyre never defines carefully what — or whom — she is writing about. The title — “maths” is Britspeak for “math” — puts the attention squarely on Brian (Martin Wenner), the (gay) tutor who has been hired privately to improve the math skills of 15-year-old friends J.J. (Ben McKay) and Tom (Nicholas Figgis).
Quite why these two are chums doesn’t begin to compute: Tom is the soft-spoken, apparently fairly reasonable child of the similarly sensible Jane (Tricia Kelly) and Paul (Christopher Ravenscroft). J.J., meanwhile, is the clearly damaged product of a broken home — a loose cannon perpetually on the outs with his real estate agent, luckless-in-love mother, Anna (Sally Dexter), and the kind of kid who thinks nothing of rifling through mom’s wallet for some spare cash.
From there, it’s merely a different degree of delinquency to accuse a man wrongly of child molestation, which J.J. proceeds to do after he finds himself alone with Brian during one particular tutorial. It’s giving little away, however, to let slip that the lie doesn’t so much backfire as explode in J.J.’s wounded face. (McKay plays the part, head bent forward, as if in a permanent slouch.) Not only does his mother haul him across the carpet — the word “bigot” getting defined for us in the meantime, as if the play were an educational initiative — but J.J. risks losing Tom as a friend. Tom, you see, knows an additional truth: Brian, the tutor, and Tom’s dad are lovers.
With J.J.’s false accusation defused well before play’s end, the action shifts to a mighty soggy reckoning between the bisexual husband and long-suffering wife, who has had the misfortune to be nicknamed “Lumpy” by her spouse. (On those grounds alone, I’d have divorced him.) Though McIntyre quite rightly comes down on the side of honesty — there’s a climactic toast to “being oneself” — the proceedings feel notably phony, and they’re not helped by a physical production in which a reference to “the middle of the afternoon” finds much of the set shrouded in darkness. (The lighting designer is James Farncombe.)
Exactly who is the play’s focus? Impossible to tell, though “the maths tutor” himself barely registers as a candidate. On star power alone, Dexter should by rights dominate: a gifted alumna of the Royal Shakespeare Co., National Theater and the Cameron Mackintosh-Sam Mendes revival of “Oliver!” (she was that staging’s first Nancy), her chatterbox Anna comes in and out of view. This contradictory character would defy any performer’s ability to get a handle on her. The sort of person who talks over anyone else (the play briefly has the aural landscape of an Altman film), Anna for much of the evening is held up to audience ridicule, which makes it hard to switch gears when we are suddenly expected to feel sympathy for her.
Exerting charm in a serious vacuum, Dexter isn’t the only performer who seems quite reasonably cast adrift. Playing the quietly put-upon wife who realizes her lot in life is to be “a mum, (and) that’s it,” Kelly can’t survive the sodden theatrics that ultimately capsize the writing, while Wenner’s Brian, agreeable presence that he is, remains an authorial mouthpiece. Most disorienting of all are the contempo references (“The Matrix,” etc.) that in no way dispel one’s sense of a play locked in some tremulous time capsule. “This isn’t the mincing ’70s,” someone remarks. “This is now.” Wanna bet?