Think a Jewish Alan Ayckbourn tinged with elements of “No Sex Please, We’re British,” and you’ve got the pitch for sophomore dramatist Simon Mendes da Costa’s “Losing Louis,” which will run for as long as there are auds cued to respond to rhetorical questions like, “What am I, chopped liver?” In culinary terms, the play is a decidedly light meal prepared to within an inch of its comedic life by director Robin Lefevre: Commercial prospects look strong in obvious markets (Florida!), while the same script — readily Americanized — could keep summer stock impresarios noshing for some time to come.
First seen in January at the Hampstead Theater, arresting that venue’s long-running streak of losers, “Losing Louis” has arrived at the Trafalgar Studios courtesy of the same producer, Michael Codron, who for so long was the West End keeper of the Ayckbourn flame. Interweaving two stories set in the same room at different times, play is raunchier than the Ayckbourn norm (Sir Alan never discussed a pierced clitoris), its putative hipness helped no end by a cast that mixes Mike Leigh alum Alison Steadman with TV heartthrob Jason Durr, not to mention an opening encounter in the bedroom that will have young couples on dates salivating into their plastic cups of wine.
Sophisticated? Not really, and “Losing Louis” also is notably free of the venal subtext that often gives Ayckbourn such a frisson. But such factors won’t matter to that public — always sizable in London — that wants sex please, and lots of it, as a subtext, alongside such groan-friendly puns as, “Dad wouldn’t have been seen dead” — this to describe a father who has just, you guessed it, died.
Durr’s enthusiastically priapic Louis, a lawyer, opens the play in 1950s England in flagrante with legal trainee — and mistress — Bella (Anita Briem), unaware that his 6-year-old son is hiding underneath the bed. (And that his wife, Emma Cunniffe’s Bobbie, isn’t far away.)
Cut to the same bedroom in the present-day and to Louis’ funeral, which finds the young boy now grown into the disputatious Tony (David Horovitch), older brother to the also adulterous Reggie, (Brian Protheroe), another lawyer.
Richard Bean’s “Honeymoon Suite” last year effected a more cunning variation on the same idea, bringing three separate occupants of a single hotel room into a sometimes simultaneous orbit. Da Costa, by contrast, seems to lose interest in the Louis scenario he has so carefully set up. Instead, attention shifts to the byplay between the two modern-day brothers and their sharp-tongued wives: Sheila (Steadman, proving her skill once again at the smiley putdown) and Elizabeth (Lynda Bellingham, in ace form).
Da Costa has come to playwriting from a career in real estate, which may explain a talent for enhancing the trappings of a theatrical property that doesn’t have all that much there. By turns rancorous and sentimental, smutty (see a middle-aged woman bare her bottom!) and prurient, the writing rarely lets psychological probity stand in the way of a good line about gefilte fish or a Darth Vader impersonation from Steadman that is not a little bizarre.
If the steep rake of the Trafalgar seems somewhat at odds with the TV-friendly intimacy of the play’s conceit, it does at least allow the cast to bat Da Costa’s funnier lines to the back row of an appreciative house.
Horovitch doesn’t miss a trick as the inquiring Tony (“What’s it like to have a foreskin?” is one of his more, uh, pressing questions), nor does Briem in an exceedingly promising debut that could mark her out as an English Meg Ryan, should she want such a career.
As for the references to such British cultural templates as “the offside rule” and Lanzarote, the cup of tea as a social cure-all and lesbian jokes as the last word in risque speech, there’s little that is sufficiently specific to “Losing Louis” that it couldn’t be lost (or at least amended) in translation. Chopped liver, after all, is chopped liver, no matter how you slice it.