"One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage," wrote Anton Chekhov," if no one is thinking of firing it." Even if you rooted around beneath the chaos of the family kitchen in which Amelia Bullmore's touching comedy takes place, you wouldn't come up with a gun, but you would find a series of time-bomb plot devices nicely detonated in the second act. Intriguingly, none of them explodes in the way one expects.

“One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage,” wrote Anton Chekhov,” if no one is thinking of firing it.” Even if you rooted around beneath the chaos of the family kitchen in which Amelia Bullmore’s touching comedy takes place, you wouldn’t come up with a gun, but you would find a series of time-bomb plot devices nicely detonated in the second act. Intriguingly, none of them explodes in the way one expects.

“Mammals,” recent joint winner of the Susan Smith Blackburn prize and now on a U.K. tour following runaway success at London’s tiny Bush Theater, is the first stage play from actress/TV writer Amelia Bullmore. At first, it’s impossible not to notice that her pedigree is showing. The frantic-mother-at-home-with-children is a well-worn sitcom scenarios. And her actor credentials are visible in her choice to have the two daughters amusingly played by adults.

Jane (Niamh Cusack) is on the daily treadmill that is getting the children up, dressed, fed and off to school. The girls have far more important things in mind, like playing, arguing, fighting, sulking and repeating as (un)necessary.

Casting adults not only banishes all cutesiness, it operates as a visual metaphor for the way children take up all available space in family lives. And, of course, it ups the knowing comedy several notches when their mother, fast approaching the end of her tether, yells at the heedless children, “You are little, I don’t care how big you feel, and I am in charge!”

Much to her exasperation — and exhaustion — Jane’s building inspector husband, Kev (Daniel Ryan), is away most of the week. He returns, announcing, “You’re my wife. you’re my Jane. I tell you things.” What she didn’t expect him to tell her is that he’s in love with another woman.

But before they’ve managed to get their teeth into an honest-to-God stinking row, Kev’s oldest and most freewheeling friend, Phil (Mark Bonnar), and his glamorously tall girlfriend Lorna (Anna Chancellor) turn up. Within minutes everyone is confidentially ‘fessing up to all manner of secrets and lies.

Bullmore has a nice way with structure, with characters switching allegiances in consecutive scenes. Yet there’s a nagging feeling that her TV-style dialogue lacks the stillness and emotional freight of theater writing.

Happily, that arrives in the richer second half, where she reveals her skill in misdirection. She leads us to believe there is something between Jane and Phil. There is, but not the conclusion to which we have merrily leaped. Similarly, the plotline triggered by an abandoned mobile phone has a wholly unexpected outcome.

Optimism being about as fashionable as stove-pipe hats, most modern marriage plays turn out to be nothing of the sort. Yet Bullmore has written one that actually isn’t about divorce. For all the patterning of the couples, both of whose relationships are fracturing, the discussions about love, passion and commitment — “Are we just mammals at the mercy of our urges? — dig surprisingly deep.

Not that she strays toward Strindberg. Jess’ constant interruptions of her parents’ marital showdown, for example, are as amusing as they are potentially upsetting.

For all that, the play tends to err on the side of safety and, despite the adroitness of Anna Mackmin’s direction, it initially struggles to fill the expanse of a proscenium arch stage. If it gets the West End transfer the producers seek, they’ll need a cozy auditorium to allow it to work.

Mackmin’s most discernible touch is to have coaxed engagingly relaxed performances from her entire cast. Cusack and Ryan are wholly convincing as a long-married couple. His acute observation that, after 12 years, “The rate of surprises drops to almost nothing” aches with sadness because he allows you to see just how happy they once were.

Double-edged possibilities in a situation or line look like being Bullmore’s hallmark. Bonnar’s Phil is winningly feckless yet clear-headed. Chancellor, mistress of comic disdain, seizes her every opportunity, turning Lorna’s ludicrous self-obsession to attractive comedy. As she walks out on Phil, she turns back to proffer blunt advice. “Forget about other people!” Nothing could be further from Bullmore’s mind.

Mammals

Richmond Theater, London; 818 Seats; £24 ($42) Top

Production

A Bush Prods. in association with Matthew Byam Shaw presentation of the Bush Theater production of a play in two acts by Amelia Bullmore. Directed by Anna Mackmin.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Paul Wills; lighting Howard Harrison; sound, Mike Walker. Opened, reviewed Feb. 22, 2006. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Phil - Mark Bonnar Lorna - Anna Chancellor Jane Hammersby - Niamh Cusack Jess Hammersby - Jane Hazlegrove Betty Hammersby - Helena Lymbery Kev Hammersby - Daniel Ryan

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