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Serenading Louie

It's impossible to re-create the impact Lanford Wilson's 1970 drama, "Serenading Louie," must have had on audiences at its premiere.

With:
Gabrielle - Charlotte Emmerson Alex - Jason Butler Harner Carl - Jason O'Mara Mary - Geraldine Somerville

It’s impossible to re-create the impact Lanford Wilson’s 1970 drama, “Serenading Louie,” must have had on audiences at its premiere. His portrait of the desolation beneath the aspirations of American marriage predates the explosion detonated by Marilyn French’s “The Women’s Room” by seven years. It’s hardly his fault that “thirtysomething,” “The Ice Storm” and “Mad Men” have since mapped similar territory. But Wilson continues to score via his non-naturalistic handling of the topic, a treatment made chilling flesh in Simon Curtis’ splendidly acted revival.

At the time he wrote it, it’s unlikely Wilson had seen the 1969 marriage play, “How the Other Half Loves,” by then-barely-known Alan Ayckbourn. But “Louie” shares many of its spatial and temporal devices, chiefly that of having two couples simultaneously inhabit the same stage space. Yet where Ayckbourn crafted a comedy with painful moments, Wilson’s not-so-delicate balance is the other way around.

The back wall of Peter McKintosh’s smart 1970s period set is dominated by a wide window that looks out literally and metaphorically onto darkness. In it, we see a reflection of the TV that lawyer Alex (Jason Butler Harner, slim enough to look eaten away from the inside) is watching late at night, slumped on the sofa, the very picture of introspection.

Reflection is the name of Wilson’s game. It’s there in his characters, two middle-aged Chicago couples. They find themselves reflecting upon their dreams, which, without their noticing at first, have turned sour.

On the brink of becoming a Congressman, Alex is growing increasingly estranged from his wife, Gabrielle, portrayed by Charlotte Emerson as a woman being driven to neuroticism by his withholding behavior.

These two are mirrored by Wilson’s deployment of the same set for the home of Alex’s buoyant Northwestern chum, Carl (superbly relaxed, unshowy Jason O’Mara), a quarterback-turned-entrepreneur now married to ex-homecoming queen Mary (bone-dry Geraldine Somerville, carrying off ’60s couture and hair like a badge of pride). While these two are also outwardly successful, they too are quietly drowning in marital malaise.

Across mostly duet and quartet scenes, the coexisting characters investigate their own and each other’s marriages. Through direct address, overlapping dialogue and time-slips that knit separate moments together, they express their struggle with the arrival of middle age. Their sense of dislocation grows increasingly dangerous as quietly set-up plot points bear late and fatal fruit.

Yet for all the structural felicities that help reveal the characters’ engaging contradictions, the play initially suffers from wordiness. For almost the whole of the less vivid first act, even this cast’s consummate characterization cannot disguise the over-reliance of the couples’ balancing act on expository dialogue.

However, toward the end of the act when a fight suddenly but convincingly erupts between the men, it serves as a measure of how deeply felt the situation actually is.

Welcome laughs come from the characters’ often amusing expressions of bafflement at the late-1960s revolutionary fervor of the younger generation that has ousted them.

Indeed, terror about their present sends them running into an embrace of the past. Telling the story of her highly sexed courtship with Carl, Somerville’s wry Mary wrings every possible laugh and meaning out of the line “I don’t actually think … that I loved him then. But I loved him then now.”

Wilson, however, is intent upon exploding the myth of nostalgia as consolation. His icy evisceration of middle-class American marriage proves that nostalgia can metastasize from mere homesickness into a terminal disease.

Serenading Louie

Donmar Warehouse, London; 250 seats; £29 $45 top

Production: A Donmar Warehouse presentation of a play in two acts by Lanford Wilson. Directed by Simon Curtis.

Crew: Sets and costumes, Peter McKintosh; lighting, Guy Hoare; original music and sound; Adam Cork; production stage manager, Lucy Parkes. Opened, reviewed Feb. 16, 2010. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast: Gabrielle - Charlotte Emmerson Alex - Jason Butler Harner Carl - Jason O'Mara Mary - Geraldine Somerville

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