Hotel cleaners will want a different profession should they end up at “Breathing Corpses,” Laura Wade’s only intermittently life-giving play that sets before us a daisy-chain of death. Arguably more fun to piece together in the mind afterwards than it is to watch, Anna Mackmin’s Royal Court studio production gains immeasurably from Ian Dickinson’s throat-grabbing sound design, which ups the ante on those moments — and there are plenty of them — that the playwright has left out.
Still, there are worse ways to spend 75 minutes than charting the structure by which Wade’s five scenes play themselves out. And if it falls to Amy (Laura Elphinstone) to frame the play as a hotel maid with a habit of discovering corpses while on the job, well, sometimes staying at home does seem the better option.
The weakest scene, in fact, is the opening, which takes the form of a lengthy monologue of an irredeemably phony sort. Amy, a young Northerner who seems to be someone whom life has fundamentally taken by surprise, has chanced upon the dead body of a man, Jim, who would appear to have killed himself. Amy’s faintly comical remark, “God not again,” also suggests she has been down this disconcerting path before — as, indeed, Wade’s closing scene will bear out, in not-quite-circular fashion.
In between come various encounters for two and three people, including an introduction to the abject presence that was Jim (Paul Copley) when he was alive. His stressful marriage to Elaine (Niamh Cusack) has gone as grievously quiet as the relationship between Kate (Tamzin Outhwaite) and her younger b.f. Ben (the engaging James McAvoy) is noisily intense. It’s giving little away to let slip that Kate and Ben will be no more successful than were Elaine and Jim at jointly surviving intact a play in which even the sweet, guileless Amy is seen to be at risk.
There’s little denying the seriousness of a play that draws its title from Sophocles (“When a man has lost all happiness, he’s not alive. Call him a breathing corpse.”), even if the inexorable pull of the best Greek tragedy is precisely what has gone missing here.
Mackmin, as director, seems torn between providing sufficient clues so the audience can follow the play and allowing for various bits of thespian and scenic business that slow down an already short evening. (The play feels considerably longer than it is.) The best encounter by far finds TV name Outhwaite and McAvoy as a literally battle-scarred pair of young lovers, who come to a lethal impasse over the treatment of a dog (kept offstage). Toward the end, an initially likable Rupert Evans proceeds to fray the nerves as a purportedly hungover hotel guest, Charlie, who happens to have with him an ornately carved Japanese knife.
“Breathing Corpses” might itself breathe more easily if it seemed less programmatic. Instead, the play’s essential slackness is shown up by the frisson felt in the auditorium every time a siren was heard outside the theater walls. Not for the first time, art was upstaged by life.