London is by all accounts one of the world’s most surveillance-intensive of cities, so it would seem tailor-made for Rob Evans’ “A Girl in a Car with a Man” were the play itself less trying. As it is, the video screens dominating designer Ultz’s circular Royal Court Upstairs playing space suggest an arena for voyeurs, which makes it doubly odd to find that the evening is actually rather dull. You come away having clocked Evans’ point and yet unmoved, as if the prosaic nature of the title were the show’s affective sum total.
It’s not unusual to find a thesis taking the place of an actual play, which may explain why Evans’ Court debut feels both skillfully worked out and utterly hermetic. Taking its cue from the abduction of a young girl (hence the title) witnessed only on video, the writing goes on to relate three separate narratives that all share an interest in surfaces, in lives that take place via the reflection or image of living rather than the thing itself.
Though more ambitious than its immediate predecessor in this space, Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s “Fresh Kills,” “Girl” feels both overlong and incomplete, as if Evans were hopping among stories, none of which really stands up on its own.
This is one dramatist who certainly likes to let his characters go on — and on: It’s rare in the theater to feel as if we’re being talked at to quite such a degree by people who have barely earned our attention. No sooner has Shopping Channel presenter Stella (Claudie Blakley) driven hundreds of miles north from London and stumbled into the cottage of David (Mark Bonnar) than she’s divulging her life history to the Scotsman, who just wants to be left to fix his radio.
Why bend someone else’s ear when you can amuse yourself? That’s very much the separate odyssey embarked upon by Alex (Andrew Scott), a young Irishman busily recording his own video diary of life on the gay prowl. His existence asks the same question — how do we connect? — that keeps the raindrenched Stella chattering away, in an effort to fill what Beckett famously described as “no lack of void.” (Stella, tellingly, refers at one point to “this great silence.”)
One kind of connection can preempt another, as the play’s third scenario makes plain. Paula (Sukie Smith) is so disturbed by closed-circuit TV footage of the disappearing girl that she sets out on her own urban trawl, oblivious to the cries within her home of a clearly anxious baby. Back indoors, when not staring, zombie-like, at the television, she trades notes with a policeman (Mark Leadbetter) who suffers from his own encroaching blankness. “I’m very unemotional,” he says. “You gotta be, the things I see.”
“Girl” could usefully do with building some emotion, instead of wearing its anomie on its deadening sleeve. After a while, one gets the impression that director Joe Hill-Gibbins has understood the necessary environment for the play somewhat better than how to populate it, and Evans’ script isn’t easy on his cast.
Stella, for instance, might have been intended as a manic yet irresistible life force, but Blakley, a good actress, seems as exhausted by her as we ultimately are.
Carrying the burden of keeping up a running monologue across nearly two hours without intermission, Scott can’t fully peel back Alex’s primary narcissism to expose the solitude and emptiness beneath — or make us rejoice in his epiphany at the play’s close. Smith, in turn, hasn’t much to work with as the apparently suicidal Paula, who has witnessed one social perturbation too many and simply snapped.
It’s Bonnar as the onetime photographer David (another person whose life has been defined by some kind of lens) who elicits what sympathy there is, as part of an unexpectedly upbeat conclusion that sees an end to the rain that has punctuated the play throughout. And as Ultz and Johanna Town’s lighting lets in the sun, wouldn’t you know, David’s radio even starts to work? A guy in a room with his radio: Now there’s a play.