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Shopping and Fucking

Never mind shopping and fucking, the twin activities referred to in the none-too-gen-teel title of Mark Ravenhill's first full-length play; shocking is more like it. An irredeemably sad portrait of a rudderless, even ruthless generation, "Shopping and Fucking" is a shock for reasons that go way beyond the graphic sexual acts either shown or -- more often -- alluded to and discussed during the play.

Never mind shopping and fucking, the twin activities referred to in the none-too-gen-teel title of Mark Ravenhill’s first full-length play; shocking is more like it. An irredeemably sad portrait of a rudderless, even ruthless generation, “Shopping and Fucking” is a shock for reasons that go way beyond the graphic sexual acts either shown or — more often — alluded to and discussed during the play.

More unnerving is Ravenhill’s depiction of a society quietly corrupted by sorrow and pain, in which any feeling is a mere transaction, intimacy a myth. A co-production of the Royal Court and director Max Stafford-Clark’s touring Out of Joint company, this is the play a previous Court headline-grabber, Sarah Kane’s “Blasted,” was aiming toward but was too hung up on its own sensationalism to achieve.

“Shopping and Fucking” addresses tellingly, though in no way gratuitously, a world rife with gratuitous violence, whether — as happens to the characters in the play — in burger bars with a plastic fork, in a 7-Eleven with a knife or within the confines of a family that has made sodomy a habit. And those put off by the startling title might do well to consider one thought — the F word (if not the act) figures far more prominently in the concurrent London production of Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.” So much for controversy.

The central character is Mark (James Kennedy), a youthful recovering junkie who lives in a vaguely defined [7mmenage a trois[22;27m with boyfriend Robbie (Andrew Clover) and Lulu (Kate Ashfield, late of “Blasted”) in a virtually bare flat, surviving on microwave meals. Looking to start anew, Mark drifts toward Gary (Antony Ryding), a male prostitute whom we discover to be only 14. And though Lulu yearns to be a serious actress and can recite Chekhov as she undresses, she and Robbie inhabit their own [7mfin-de-siecle[22;27m life of Ecstasy tablets and phone sex lines, not birch trees and country estates. (This play would have made a far more apt response last year to Stafford-Clark’s “Three Sisters” than Timberlake Wertenbaker’s “The Break of Day.”)

Those searching for role models will find the elder generation scarcely more promising. Lulu and Robbie fall under the sway of the scarily entrepreneurial Brian (Robin Soans), whose motto — “Money is civilization” — could have been lifted from virtually every leftist Court play of the last decade, from “Serious Money” and Martin Crimp’s “The Treatment” onward. Julian McGowan’s chicly arid, neon-flecked set recalls the latter play, too.

But the fact that money only dehumanizes is clear enough from a play in which ownership and possession are all, and death, like sex, can be bought. “We exist in chaos, and finally we are released from chaos,” Brian says. Both conditions, the play makes clear, carry a pricetag.

Far from toppling into the salacious, “Shopping and Fucking” parades its seriousness of intent every minute, and Ravenhill can’t always avoid portentousness, pretension, or both. (Surely it’s no accident that Lulu has the same name as the fiercely sexual, yet doomed, Wedekind-Berg heroine.) Mark gets the most blatant of the thesis-mongering, a post-apocalypse vision of a blasted Earth included, though it is hard to imagine disco devotee Robbie pausing for a second to ponder suffering in Rwanda or Kiev.

Still, the narrative is ingeniously, if chillingly, worked out to smooth over obvious bumps in the writing and in Stafford-Clark’s unevenly acted staging. And in Ryding’s masochistic Gary, the play has a character — and an actor — one won’t soon forget. Boasting of his lucky streak in arcades, Gary has lost out only at life, as he searches for the man powerful enough to fulfill his lethal fantasy. “I want it over, and there’s only one ending,” says Gary, and so there is, as Lulu, Robbie and Mark are left eating a meal while Ravenhill puts another nail into the coffin of all things moral.

Shopping and Fucking

  • Production: An Out of Joint and Royal Court Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Mark Ravenhill. Directed by Max Stafford-Clark. Sets and costumes, Julian McGowan.
  • Crew: Lighting, Johanna Town; sound, Paul Arditti. Opened, reviewed Oct. 1, 1996, at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs (Ambassadors); 65 seats; $: 10 ($ 15. 50) top. Running time: 2 HOURS.
  • With: Cast: Kate Ashfield (Lulu), Andrew Clover (Robbie), James Kennedy (Mark), Robin Soans (Brian), Antony Ryding (Gary).
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