Greta Gerwig, indie pinup girl for “Frances Ha,” proves stageworthy playing a sexually needy woman in “The Village Bike.” In this dark domestic dramedy, which preemed at the Royal Court in 2011, Brit scribe Penelope Skinner tackles some hot topics, from the addictive nature of pornography to female rape fantasies. But there’s no consistency to the scribe’s dramatic voice, which veers from the realistic to the ridiculous in the mouths of characters who don’t talk the same language — and don’t even seem to inhabit the same play.
Skinner’s one clever idea was to switch the conventionally clichéd roles of young marrieds expecting their first child. Here, it’s John (Jason Butler Harner), not Becky (Gerwig), who gets the nesting urge. He’s the one who decorates the nursery, assembles crib toys, researches nutritional food sources and hangs on every thump of the dear little fetus’ heartbeat.
Playing the part normally assigned to horny husbands, Becky would be happy with less baby talk and more sex.
But John is so enthralled by the Madonna myth of pregnant women that he can’t bring himself to penetrate his wife’s sacred vagina — even after she corrects his confusion about wombs and vaginas. And their silly neighbor, Jenny (Cara Seymour), gets so carried away by her own sentimental notions about motherhood that she misreads Becky’s plea for understanding.
In frustration, Becky turns to John’s secret stash of porn CDs, which give her all kinds of forbidden fantasies. Sheer desperation even has her eyeing Mike (Max Baker), the elderly widowed plumber who shows up to take care of her “sweaty pipes.” But a more presentable and far more dangerous prospect presents itself when Oliver (Scott Shepherd), the village stud, drops by to deliver the secondhand bicycle that Becky bought from him to escape the house and burn off some of that sexual energy.
By the end of this over-written first act, it’s still not clear where Skinner is going, and helmer Sam Gold is dropping too many mixed signals to take a guess. Gerwig stays on message by approaching Becky realistically and playing her sympathetically. But the basic circumstances of the plot, taken with the absurdly broad characterizations of John and Jenny, seem to indicate comedy tonight. If trimmed to a few snappy scenes, the material might, indeed, lend itself to a comedy of marital manners.
But after an unnecessarily elaborate (and no doubt costly) set change, all that changes in the second act. Without much ado, Gerwig and Shepherd get down to acting out Becky’s sex fantasies, performance chores that both thesps carry out extremely well. Shepherd effortlessly takes Oliver through some seamless character changes, while Gerwig carefully, and oh-so-sensitively guides Becky into deeper and darker levels of her addiction to sex. Or maybe it’s just her addiction to Oliver, a sexy sadist in the sweaty performance given by Shepherd, better known as a member of the Wooster Group and, most recently, as the charismatic reader in the Elevator Repair Service’s groundbreaking production of “Gatz.”
Although husband John and silly Jenny are still playing the fools, Baker takes Mike the plumber through some harrowing moments in this pitch-black act. In the end, though, it’s Becky who stands alone to suffer the fate of every tarnished heroine who dares to assert her sexuality without getting a permission slip from the men in this black-and-white movie.