Douglas Hodge is all teeth in Joe Penhall's latest play, "Dumb Show," which only redoubles the wish for more bite in the writing. Playing Barry, a down-on-his-luck comic entertainer and TV name, Hodge projects the forced bonhomie of a public figure who knows his time is up.

Douglas Hodge is all teeth in Joe Penhall’s latest play, “Dumb Show,” which only redoubles the wish for more bite in the writing. Playing Barry, a down-on-his-luck comic entertainer and TV name who sounds suspiciously like disgraced British personality Michael Barrymore, Hodge projects the forced bonhomie of a public figure who knows his time is up — which Barry’s is about to be, thanks to the U.K.’s tabloid press.

Not, of course, that Barry thinks the apparently solicitous Liz (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Greg (Rupert Graves) are actually sleaze merchants from the start. For a considerable amount of their first encounter at a five-star hotel (all anonymous glassed-in chic in Es Devlin’s design), Barry takes the pair at face value, assuming them to be private bankers there to offer him a profitable speaking engagement. After all, how else would they casually slide into the cocaine-fueled sphere that unites those at the top of the professional tree?

Barry, then, is in for a shock and then some when Penhall springs his surprise. (Spoiler-minded readers should stop reading now.) In barely the time required to turn the page, “Jane” and “John” reveal their true colors as a wily reporter (Liz) and something rather sinisterly referred to as “investigations editor” (Greg). And now they have the scoop of the week in the druggy, womanizing, drink-happy “real” life of TV’s “Mr. Saturday Night,” a talent whose misdeeds — once exposed — will make the journalists’ careers.

That’s really all there is to “Dumb Show,” I’m sorry to say, though more single-minded moralists may think this more than enough. Whereas David Mamet (to cite one example among many) might well have taken the plot a step or two further, applying some sort of twist, Penhall revels in a supposed expose of the debased tendencies of the press that, frankly, is scarcely news at all.

Penhall, who penned upcoming pic “Enduring Love,” is best known in the theater for his National Theater success “Blue/Orange,” about a young black schizophrenic. This play, one could argue, shifts his interest in mental illness into a different, undoubtedly more upmarket arena: What sort of sick society allows — no, depends upon — the shenanigans perpetrated by Liz and Greg?

Perhaps they are just cogs in an ethics-crushing machine that’s bigger than they are: “Fame is a cancer, a plague,” intones Greg, whom even Graves, a fine actor, can’t make a singular flesh-and-blood presence. “It’s fucking everywhere, and it’s destroying us.”

Well, maybe if Penhall, a onetime journalist himself, got out more and obsessed over the papers less, his writing would seem less smug. As it is, the various scripted rhymes and verbal eccentricities come off as so much window-dressing attempting to buttress the play’s shallow, self-evident theme.

And though Hodge — a revelation in the West End “Three Sisters” with Kristin Scott Thomas last season — gives one of those all-stops-out performances that tends to win awards, he’s not in the least bit likable, flailing away in desperate confrontation with two of Fleet Street’s not-so-finest.

The result is there’s very little affectively at stake once Barry is threatened with the loss and/or defection of his wife, his agent and his fans. On some level, one can’t help but feel that Penhall’s contempt is spilling over from the tabloid hacks toward their prey, who, if Barry were truly a good and decent citizen, wouldn’t have become ensnared in the so-called fame game to begin with.

Director Terry Johnson could use something of a tabloid writer’s cut and thrust: Too few of the scenes land as woundingly as they should, and it simply isn’t enough for Bruno Poet’s lighting scheme to go all red and lurid as the revelations mount.

Even Barry is over time shown to have his own price, but that’s yesterday’s headlines, too, especially in the country that more or less owns the patent on checkbook journalism.

Amid the cumulative posturing, one seeks what pleasures exist on the periphery. I’ll fondly remember the play for one priceless remark from Renee Zellweger look-alike Maxwell Martin, when she drops her sweet-faced viperishness to let slip that she really would like to have been a music critic.

Go for it, I say.

Dumb Show

Royal Court Jerwood Theater Downstairs, London; 397 Seats; £27.50 ($49) Top

Production

A Royal Court Theater presentation of a play by Joe Penhall in one act. Directed by Terry Johnson.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Es Devlin; lighting, Bruno Poet; sound, Ian Dickinson. Opened, reviewed Sept. 7, 2004. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

Barry - Douglas Hodge Liz - Anna Maxwell Martin Greg - Rupert Graves
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