You don’t expect to feel sympathy at a Neil LaBute play, but you do anticipate a modicum of interest, no matter how scabrous the world he puts onstage. So it’s shocking to report that the biggest surprise in his third new play in six months, “Some Girl(s),” is how becalmed it seems. There’s scant LaButian twist here; against the odds, the writing emerges by play’s end as weirdly sentimental. And David Schwimmer’s uninflected perf in the tricky central role can’t raise the tension level of a variably acted staging from David Grindley that may leave auds wondering, so what?
This world preem precedes by one week the local Donmar bow of LaBute’s “This Is How It Goes,” another play that (like this season’s “Fat Pig”) can be said to have substituted an idea for a play for the play itself. But whereas the two Off Broadway entries pressed hot-button topics of race and obesity, respectively, “Some Girl(s)” is an underpowered picaresque busily announcing potentially volatile themes — “this burst of hurt” a major one — which leave one notably unbruised.
As with “This Is How It Goes,” the central character is called simply Man, suggesting LaBute is so busy dealing in archetypes that he has forsaken an interest in flesh-and-blood creations. While the nomenclature is intriguing (each of the play’s four women has a name that could also be a man’s), the play’s terrain seems all too fully trawled: Stephen Sondheim dissected thirtysomething romantic ache more trenchantly three decades ago in “Company.” The central character of that show, Bobby, is surely spiritual kin to Schwimmer’s questing literary wannabe here.
“Some Girl(s)” takes the form of a cross-country journey allowing the Manhattan-based Man, 33, to pay a call on four different ex-girlfriends before finally tying the knot with an unseen fiancee 10 years his junior.
Is he on a mission of self-exoneration, as he claims, or are his motives rather more dubious? The first encounter suggests the latter, with Man quietly laying waste in a Seattle hotel room to Sam (an expert Catherine Tate), his main squeeze from 15 years before. Asserting the unsayable, he turns an initially nervous encounter into a prickly, even hostile tete-a-tete.
Chicago comes next, bringing Man’s grad-school flame Tyler (Sara Powell), whose good-time-gal antics are in no way preempted by the “wedding crap” that, in her words, awaits Man. That she is black gives off the whiff of crude racial stereotyping while making for the liveliest duet of the night thanks to Powell. Her energy only throws Schwimmer’s prevailing listlessness (his line readings suggest a severely dampened-down Woody Allen) into bolder relief.
Boston follows, and with it a scene that comes off as a synoptic rewrite of “The Graduate.” Playing the proverbial older woman, Lesley Manville (“Topsy-Turvy”) compensates for a wobbly American accent with a concentrated desire for revenge. Though Man has written successfully of “The Calculus of Desire,” he never reckoned on being a useful pawn in the marital life of Manville’s Lindsay, who’s every bit as tightly wound as her hair.
As it happens, her ruse, by LaBute’s standards, turns out to be disappointingly tame, and Schwimmer yet again so undersells the sizzle that it’s virtually impossible to tell why these attractive femmes — four of an apparently countless number — would in later life have given two hoots about Man to begin with.
Closing out LaBute’s not fully chronological sequence is Man’s Los Angeles face-off with Bobbi (Saffron Burrows, her accent even more questionable than Manville’s), one of identical twins who before long is invoking J. Robert Oppenheimer and Pol Pot, if you please, in her tirade. “When is hurting someone OK — when you say so?” asks the rampaging Bobbi.
Her question leads to a solo finale for a lachrymose Schwimmer, who has learned less from his travels than one might think after LaBute’s dramatic jigsaw is pieced together.
Helmer Grindley’s work earlier this year on another American play, “National Anthems,” had a crackle and command that go missing here. Though Jonathan Fensom’s revolving set suggests varying degrees of upscale anonymity, hotel-style, neither the director nor his star mines whatever pathos might exist in Man’s singularly passive-aggressive encounters.
Although such literary antecedents as “Don Quixote” and “The Pilgrim’s Progress” are cited by way of comparison (“Don’t you mean ‘Rake’s?’ ” snaps Lindsay), the play seems closer to Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy,” refashioned for our fitful, fretful age.
“I suck,” says Man, employing perhaps the defining four-letter word of the evening. But auds may not be involved enough one way or another to bother to agree: This LaBute tale has very little sting.