Laugh-aloud macabre comedy charges up the opening of “Polar Bears” as a bizarre act of violence is announced. But the similarity to a Martin McDonagh play ends there. Across 19 sharply focused, non-chronological scenes, Mark Haddon presents contrasting, compassionate facets of interconnected relationships centering around a young woman with bipolar disorder. But Jamie Lloyd’s first-rate production notwithstanding, the intrigue slowly cools and the play deflates.
Haddon, best known for his worldwide bestselling novel “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” makes his playwriting debut with a highly welcome theatricality. He aims considerably higher than the expected telepic-style linear approach that usually besets stories like these.
Instead of dutifully following the difficulties of his central character and her caregivers, Haddon presents Kay (nicely controlled, fast-paced Jodhi May) from conflicting perspectives, several of which turn out to be imaginary.
Kay’s past and present behavior create the motor for scenes illustrating the difficulties faced by those around her. There’s her impatient, successful salesman brother, Sandy (Paul Hilton — fascinatingly loose-limbed but emotionally tense), and long-suffering mother, Margaret, awash with mixed motives and played with a counter-intuitive briskness by Celia Imrie.
The most active character, however, is Kay’s husband, John, a philosophy lecturer swept up by her lust for her life. A vigorous Richard Coyle captures John’s naive hope but he is slightly miscast as a man whom we need to see being worn down by “the darkness” of Kay’s lows and her even more terrifying highs.
Those upswings produce some of Haddon’s most eloquent writing. In the final scene, Kay’s flight of imagination about a plane trip to Oslo is transfixing thanks to both May’s wide-eyed, super-charged delivery and also Haddon’s handling of evocative, personal detail.
Yet that sequence also reveals the play’s weakness. Kay’s desire to escape builds tension to the edge of the act described in the opening scene. But rather than creating a satisfying ending, the play just suddenly stops. It feels worryingly random and suggests scenes might be played in any order. Despite clearly sympathetic subject matter, the structure actually militates against consistent audience engagement.
Lloyd’s superbly fluid direction enhances the strength of the crosscutting. He maps the closing image of one scene onto the opening of the next with poetic economy, as when a smiling John rolls over to make love to Kay and, on a snap lighting change, simply stands up to appear, worried, at the edge of a Kay’s suggested hospital bed.
Much of that achievement depends on Soutra Gilmour’s immensely impressive set design, which is starkly lit from extreme angles by Jon Clark. Conjuring vividly delineated spaces above and beneath the acting area, their design embodies the metaphor of highs and lows that the play proposes but fails to develop emotionally.
The satisfaction of keeping abreast of Haddon’s narrative shifts is undercut by sadly over-explanatory writing. Like the March Hare in “Alice in Wonderland’s” tea party, Haddon’s characters insist that they say what they mean. But, like Alice, they also mean what they say. That combination is low on subtext and drama.