Neal and Rachel are considering marriage, but it is in the nature of charismatic leeches like Richie that he is the one to whom the pair become psychologically tied. Lacking either funds or a planned departure date, Richie slowly takes over their lives, appealing to the same qualities in them that he likes to mock. A self-confessed member of “the culture of resignation,” Richie can’t fathom Neal’s idealism even though he is well aware that his tolerated presence owes not a little to that virtue. (Later, he will owe his life to it, since his drug-induced coma puts their rapport to the ultimate test.)
Both members of the couple, in turn, find in Richie’s casually destructive hedonism a (mostly unspoken) release. A man who lives by the conviction that fun is wherever he is not, Neal admires the devil-may-care lifestyle of his errant friend; for Celia, it’s enough that Richie manages to persuade her to take a day or two off. Richie’s seduction of Celia (by act two she is defending him to Neal as “just lovely”) is as inevitable as it is disturbing, and the resulting wounds leave a sting that is only one of many ways in which Penhall makes a potentially familiar dangerous liaison into something truly fresh.
Being the occasion’s resident Satan, the louche Richie naturally has the best lines, and Bettany’s star-making performance captures the necessary air of aristocratic dissipation (he’s a natural if anyone ever revives “Another Country”), down to the soiled chinos and the linen jacket he wraps protectively around him. (The ace costumes are by Es Devlin, doubling as designer of the spare, supple set.) Able to shut out whatever he doesn’t want to hear, Richie exerts the same power to cajole within the play that Bettany does on an audience. It’s to the actor’s credit that the audience forestalls the obvious question, Why don’t they just ask Richie to leave?
Life, of course, is not that simple, as Bush artistic director Mike Bradwell’s extraordinarily alert production makes all too clear. As the pair whose moral propriety is put under the microscope, Tennant and Robertson quietly suggest the shifting sands of a relationship altered forever by a friend to whom they are finally able to bid farewell. It’s not just that Neal takes up smoking and thinks of going abroad, two prospects alien to the Neal who began the play. More woundingly, it’s that this onetime seeker of truth can no longer be bothered to ask any question other than “Who cares?” Anyone who does care about contemporary English drama is urged to beat a hasty path to the Bush.