It’s not just the menacing grind of Gareth Fry’s vaguely industrial soundscape that gives “Wastwater” its looming air of apprehension. Fear stalks Simon Stephens’ elliptical trio of duologues between a young man leaving his foster mother, a teacher and a policewoman in an adulterous tryst that turns nasty, and a nervous man terrorized by a child-trafficker. But despite neat links between the scenarios and one of Katie Mitchell’s less indulgent productions, the effect is enervating and considerably less than the sum of its parts.
Static, in both senses of the word, is the defining term in all three beautifully acted scenes. It’s there in the sense of not moving — there is almost no touch between any of the characters — but also in the electricity that Stephens so skillfully charges up between his characters.
The oblique first scene in which we only gradually understand that foster mother Frieda (Linda Bassett) is attempting to persuade young Harry (Tom Sturridge) not to leave her has more than faint echoes of Caryl Churchill’s distilled “Far Away.” The second scene, in which a lovers’ tryst beween hopeful art teacher Paul Ready and Jo McInnes’s controlling policewoman turns menacingly sadmosochistic, is all but a direct homage to Harold Pinter while the hallmark of Martin Crimp is all over the vicious final encounter between Amanda Hale’s psychopathic young woman who destroys Angus Wright as the shiveringly needy man who is buying a child from her.
Each pair in presented in unrelenting close-up, each in a single scene in which a man is turned into a victim, toyed with by a woman. So much so that Stephens’ might be open to charges of misogyny were it not for the wealth of compassionate writing for women throughout his other plays.
In the manner of someone artfully dropping clues, motifs planted in the first scene are picked up in the subsequent encounters. Technology — SMS messages and computer technology — is presented throughout as dangerously informative and alienating. Each scene is set near an airport — cue sound effects of planes flying overhead. One of the themes from Bizet’s “Carmen” is repeatedly hummed and, more importantly, characters alluded to in one scene crop up in another.
But even though there is a momentary satisfaction in spotting the connection between, say, the hard-edged woman in the final scene and the girl mentioned in the first, the linkages feel less like dramatic connective tissue and more like authorial contrivance.
Both play and production are highly effective in conjuring pain. Policewoman Lisa’s fierce recounting of her dealings in pornography move inexorably from confession to confrontation as she leads her unwilling partner to hit her for her sexual pleasure. But there’s something more than disquieting about the way in which the play trades on audiences investing in watching that degree of pain without providing any fresh insight or understanding as a reward.
Stephens’ recent “Punk Rock” and “Harper Regan” are two of the most powerfully distinctive U.K. plays of recent years. It’s dispiriting to find him sounding as secondhand as he does here.