Busily dissing his ex-lover Ann, Dave suggests to her new partner Patrick that she is terminally bland. “You’ll find it gets pretty boring, I used to have to put a DVD on.” When “Treats” was first performed in 1976, people didn’t own videos, much less DVDs. Three decades on, playwright Christopher Hampton has updated peripheral details but the rest of his dangerous-liaison drama remains intact. Even more than before, however, despite the dialogue’s alluring comic sheen, auds may feel uncomfortable with the physical violence of this literally punishing love-triangle.
The sound of breaking glass interrupts a peaceful day for Ann (Billie Piper) and her new partner Patrick (Laurence Fox), who’s listening to Brahms on headphones. Moments later, Dave (Kris Marshall) bursts into the flat he used to live in, whips up the music level, punches Patrick on the nose, and blithely asks a shocked Ann, “Any messages?”
Supremely self-assured Dave would seem to be dominant in every sense. But in fact he has only won the first bout in what turns out to be a three-hander power struggle in the nine scenes of Hampton’s most adroitly structured play.
The action progresses through Dave’s subsequent apology, a tense dinner party, Ann’s dismissal of Patrick, and beyond. Three scenes at the beginning, middle and end for all three characters are interspersed with a duologue for each pairing plus three solo scenes, thereby allowing every variant of the triangle to be examined.
The downside of this neat construction is a chilliness which Laurence Boswell’s direction does little to disguise. His actors are all best-known for their TV work. As expected, their experience leads each of them to deliver consistent characterizations.
Fox plays Patrick as the ultimate victim, unremittingly neat and weak; Marshall’s Dave is a lanky, manipulative bully; Piper’s suffering Ann is brisk. None of them appear to have been encouraged to enrich their character with anything approaching an engaging contradiction. That leads to a faintly deadening air of predictability.
The men are polar opposites who spar their way through immensely witty lines. In a reference to the play’s title, Hampton has Patrick suggest to Dave that “If you’re frightened about what people are going to say about you, you should be careful how you treat them.” Marshall zips back: “And, conversely, needlepoint mottoes can make your thumbs bleed.”
Yet beneath the elegantly designed production’s smart surface, connections between the characters remain under-explored. A female director might have found a way to make the men seem more attractive. In Boswell’s hands it’s extremely hard to see why Ann wants either of them.
Hampton consciously wrote “Treats” as the obverse of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” a play in which a woman triumphantly leaves the man who confines her. Yet even though Ann is the focus of both the men and the play, her character is the least well-written. In her stage debut, Piper reveals a nicely controlled but energized stage presence that goes part of the way to restoring the imbalance.
Yet even she cannot pull the role into three dimensions. Her solo scene consists solely of her crying. Piper pulls this off impressively, but it’s dispiriting to realize this is the closest the text gets to revealing her thoughts.
Ann’s choice between the men is certainly dramatic because, crucially, she endures a moment of sickeningly realistic violence. The play clearly doesn’t condone such abuse, but it ends up presenting her position as a predicament, rather than fully dramatizing the dilemma of women who go back for more.