As a former Doctor Who, David Tennant has done his fair share of regenerating. In Patrick Marber’s contemporary spin on the Don Juan legend, “Don Juan in Soho,” it’s as if the age-old lothario has found himself a fresh form and is now swanning his way through the bars and beds of London’s Soho as randy as ever. The implication, even as London’s seediest neighborhood cleans up its act, is that some things never die.
Most of Marber’s plays pin masculinity in place, ready for dissection. He sees the black hole beneath, and the ways in which we seek to ward it off. The hard-hearts of “Closer,” the gamblers of “Dealer’s Choice” and the sentimental soccerheads of “The Red Lion” are all, somehow, on the run from themselves. To the collection of characters, add Marber’s reincarnation of Don Juan as a wealthy dandy who seeks solace in sex but finds no solutions there, only temporary respite and diminishing returns. Each petit mort proves too petit.
This is a man who will shag anything and everything, up to and including “the hole in the Ozone layer.” Following Moliere’s lead, Marber mostly just trots through his various sexploits, be they blushing brides or indignant wags and, if each scene’s essentially a set piece, they can be rather droll nonetheless. This Juan isn’t just a strutting peacock, he’s a cad who can’t resist a challenge, and a player with a taste for trick shots. At one point, he doubles up, picking one woman up while another’s still going down. PC this is not, but Tennant’s just about tongue-in-cheek enough (not like that) to pull it off (stop it).
In a pink-gray tartan suit, he has the air of the last man standing at an ever-lasting wedding — slightly sozzled, somewhat unkempt, but dead certain of getting off. Tennant has him shamble through life at half-speed, with nowhere to be, nothing to do and, well, nothing to lose. The usual rules don’t apply. Asked to extinguish a cigarette in a hotel lobby, he puts it out with profuse apologies, only to light another mere seconds later – so casual, it can only be read as contempt.
For whom, you may ask? In part for himself, because every now and then, his joie de vivre dries up and Tennant slips into darkness. His eyes glaze over, his smile slips away and the sheer emptiness of his sybaritic existence becomes glaringly obvious. That ennui stops short, though, and it never becomes the sinkhole that seeks self-annihilation. Tennant’s thrill-seeking has its limits, and it’s hard to believe him throwing himself headlong into an offstage street brawl just for the hell of it. He’s missing the maniac that makes Don Juan a real devil.
Without it, he can only test our tolerance so much – which is an issue, given that, to Moliere’s existential ennui, Marber adds the question of class. It’s a very British twist on a Spanish subject. How, he asks, does such boorish behavior persist? Why do we let our Don Juans get away with it? The answer, he suggests, is old-fashioned deference — one rule for the rich, another for the rest of us. Not for nothing does a statue of King Charles II preside over the play. The cavalier king who reclaimed the English throne after puritan rule is like the patron saint of plutocratic partyboys. Marber’s Don Juan could be his rightful heir.
With that in mind, his lowly sidekick Stan becomes key and, in a loveably doltish performance, Adrian Scarborough suggests he’s torn between disdain and delight. This tubby, tracksuited chaffeur knows he should throw off the shackles of servitude and ditch his demeaning master, but there’s simply too much fun to be had clinging to his coattails and soaking up sloppy seconds. Time and again, Scarborough’s scowling disapproval melts into scandalous abandon.
Truth is, we’re in the same boat, and Tennant’s such an endearing presence that, no matter how outrageous Don Juan’s behavior or how outdated his attitudes, he has the gilded charm to get away with it. As he strides towards death, willing his own ending, we even feel something like sympathy.