“You’re rather gorgeous, aren’t you?” breathes leggy TV producer Helen (Fenella Woolgar), eyeing cocky Essex lad Danny (Daniel Mays). Within minutes of an accidental meeting in a hotel, Danny is slightly stunned to find himself being directly propositioned by Helen and her schoolteacher husband, Justin (Nick Sidi). Danny lets on that he’s an ex-soldier returned from Basra, which only turns the swingers on even more. What they don’t know is that his toughness is not bravado: In his car is the body of the girl he has just murdered.
By quite some margin, this is the strongest scene in Simon Stephens’ new play “Motortown.” The writing here seethes with subtext. All three characters and the audience are glued to the tense power struggle in which each of the trio desperately tries to work out who’s in control and, at a basic level, what the hell is about to happen. Yet that strength illuminates the problem of the surrounding seven scenes. Dangerous and arresting though the play and production are, too much of the scenario is predictable.
Stephens’ play is nothing if not urgent. Ever since the eruption of first-rate poetry and plays from WWI — not the least R.C. Sheriff’s 1929 play “Journey’s End,” so successfully revived in the West End in recent years and now tipped for Broadway — writers have seized upon war experiences as source material. This is different. Instead of arguing a case for or against the invasion of Iraq or, indeed, examining what happened there, Stephens proffers a fierce portrait of the effect upon soldiers caught up in the torture.
Home from Iraq, Danny is a fish out of water. His autistic brother, Lee (Tom Fisher), lets him sleep on his couch because he has no place to go. Danny’s girlfriend, Marley (Daniela Denby-Ashe), has ditched him because his letters home “were really weird and frightening.” Against her wishes, he goes to see her but, fueled by rage, he grows increasingly swaggering and threatening.
He buys a sporting gun from a mate and, with the help of middle-aged Paul (Richard Graham), swiftly engineers it to take live ammunition. Anxious to underline that Paul is not so much amoral as immoral, Stephens gives Paul a 14-year-old girlfriend, Jade (a beautifully self-composed Ony Uhiara).
From there, the trajectory of this day-in-the-life is consciously and sickeningly inevitable. Danny is psychopathic, so it’s only a matter of time before he uses the gun, which he finally does after kidnapping Jade and submitting her to menacing, escalating torture clearly intended to reflect or at least spring from that meted out in Iraq. The starkness of Danny’s choices is emphasized by Ramin Gray’s baldly staged Royal Court production, which dispenses, at the playwright’s suggestion, with a set. Beneath tough, overhead lighting, thesps slow down the action by choreographically grouping and regrouping plastic chairs between scenes on a stage stripped bare to the back wall. The effect topples into self-consciousness, but the austerity does echo the clipped, visceral writing that ditches naturalistic setups and homes in incredibly tightly on Danny’s fury.
Gray elicits a flawless set of performances from his cast. All of them avoid the trap of anticipating emotions, playing each moment for its full worth, none more so than Mays, for whom the play was written. Mays plays Danny like a ticking bomb that might go off at any minute. He’s terrifying because he’s so mercurial, accelerating from watchful to vicious in a heartbeat. Danny’s lack of compassion means that in any given situation, he might — and does — do the unthinkable.
His fiercest hatred is for the antiwar liberals who marched against the conflict, and every other minority group, all of whom he attacks with sustained foul-mouthed loathing. Yet only those foolish enough to confuse presenting a position with endorsing it could possibly sit through this upsetting piece about the brutalizing of young men and consider it to be anything other than antiwar.
As in “Taxi Driver,” another story of a life wrecked by war and spiraling out of control to which “Motortown” is clearly indebted, the violence is shocking and used to serious effect. But this play was written in four days, and it shows.
The perspective of returning fighters like Danny needs to be heard, but too often Stephens’ own voice intrudes. “When you can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is fantasy. That’s frightening, I think,” announces Paul, unconvincingly setting forth Stephens’ own thesis. At other times, he makes Danny too self-knowing: “I don’t blame the war. The war was all right. I miss it,” he says in the play’s final moments, in case auds have missed the point.
Despite its immediacy and political potency, “Motortown” is a slice-of-life play. Undeniably powerful, it’s ultimately unsatisfying because it leaves auds with little to do but watch in mounting horror.