Oscar-winning movie title plus Hollywood hearththrob: What better way to wake up the West End while cashing in on audience recognition? That, at least, was the theory behind this staging of “Rain Man,” headlined by Josh Hartnett in what was actually the second-billed Tom Cruise role. As it turns out, the supposed ace of casting Hartnett is trumped by the performance of his lesser-known co-star, Adam Godley. That imbalance, however, is the least of this show’s problems: This “Rain Man” is a damp squib.
For anyone unfamiliar with the original, adaptor Dan Gordon sticks to the scenario of the 1988 MGM movie like glue: Hustling young car-dealer Charlie (Hartnett) discovers compassion on an unexpected road-trip with his new-found autistic savant brother Raymond (Godley) — the role created by Dustin Hoffman.
The movie balanced the brothers’ developing relationship with elaborate set-pieces built around key plot moments. These included the action sequence where Charlie kidnaps Raymond from his care-community home, the tension-fueled casino section and the explosive scene where Raymond starts a fire.
Those scenes are all absent from the stage version but not, alas, because Gordon has come up with a new, more theatrical scenario. Instead, those crucial sequences are retrospectively and lamely handled in reported speech for the simple reason that in an adaptation as dully literal as this — and with just six actors and three non-speaking understudy/walk-ons — they are unstageable.
Other than occasional interventions from Charlie’s woefully underwritten girlfriend (Mary Stockley), Raymond’s doctors or other functionaries, what’s left is largely a series of duologues for the brothers.
In order to show that Charlie is not in touch with his feelings, Hartnett rattles out his lines in toneless fashion as fast as possible. Leaving aside the fact that on press night he was tripping up on several of them, that display of the character’s inability to connect with anyone else unfortunately also includes the audience.
Hartnett’s technique of pausing between speeches might work if a close-up could be inserted. Bereft of them, he merely stands silent, unable to project his thoughts across the auditorium.
Godley, by contrast, works wonders. Having successfully played a not dissimilar role in “The Pillowman,” he is not about to fall into the Oscar-bait trap of grandstanding the disability angle. His almost solipsistic Raymond has a wholly dignified restraint. Godley’s acutely held, stooped physicality is a physical manifestation of arrested emotional development. His manner is childlike in its inwardly focused, unreasoning insistence, but touching elderly in its fearful fragility.
Yet even Godley falls victim to the problems facing a drama on so sensitive a subject. To create conflict, Raymond needs to be shown having properly distressing “emotional episodes.” But the desire to portray autism in the best and most responsible manner means the two episodes we see last only a matter of seconds.
The most striking case of this is the replay of the revelatory movie scene in which Raymond goes ballistic at the potential danger of a hot shower. As staged by Terry Johnson, here Raymond starts to yell when Charlie turns on a faucet in a hand-basin on the other side of Jonathan Fensom’s drab set. The moment has startlingly little impact, and must be initially baffling to anyone coming fresh to the material.
Sensitive though that is to concerns of representation, it makes the stakes are depressingly low. If Raymond is really only frustrating and difficult to be with, what’s the point of the play?
The success of this profoundly secondhand venture will rest solely on Hartnett’s box-office appeal. The novelty of seeing a Hollywood star on a London stage may encourage some, but everyone else is likely to reason that buying a DVD for £5 makes more sense than paying £47 for an inferior copy.