Doug Lucie has made an impressive career in plays like “The Shallow End” out of skewering the mores and pretensions of the England he sees around him. But in his new play, “Love You, Too,” the Oxford-educated leftist author of such zeitgeist plays as “Fashion” and “Progress” does something far more difficult, turning his lacerating eye (and ear) on that world closer to home that begins with the self. The fierce result is impeccably served by director Mike Bradwell and a uniformly top-rank cast, but it induces a catharsis neither from its audience nor, one imagines, from its playwright. The evening’s emotional weight derives instead from the feeling that one is witnessing the ongoing trauma of a nightmare never to be assuaged and sure to be ceaselessly replayed.
These may seem grand claims to make for a play that, in outline, may sound derivative of at least half a dozen others, not least Patrick Marber’s concurrent and more structurally cunning “Closer,” to which “Love You, Too” might seem a sort of offspring were Lucie, at 44, not 12 years Marber’s senior.
But it’s the older dramatist’s very real achievement to enliven potentially second-hand material with the bruising sense that he knows his characters’ distress all too fully firsthand. And in the intimate environment of the Bush, audiences, especially, don’t lie: come the opening-night bows, the spectators looked as wiped-out as a thoroughly committed cast.
The play covers roughly the same time span as “Closer,” beginning with the Labor government’s surprising defeat by John Major’s Conservative government in 1992 and finishing on the day of Labor’s (OK, New Labor’s) historic landslide victory five years later. In the intervening time, Lucie’s London-based foursome have been through at least as many reversals and jolts as the seemingly entrenched Tory party that the property-obsessed Jim (Reece Dinsdale) begins to turn against.
Not that politics impinge greatly on these people’s lives: Shelley (Susannah Doyle), a onetime partner of Jim’s and lifelong best friend to Jim’s estate agent lover Ros (Miranda Foster), proposes a holiday in Yugoslavia and is stunned to hear that the country no longer exists. She has been too busy fretting about the welfare of her (unseen) young son George to bone up on Bosnia. And besides, Shelley’s free time is spent largely having sex with musician partner Mick (Sam Graham), before their relationship turns rancid.
Both partnerings in the play dry up — one lethally so — though Lucie is far too smart to make their downward curves in any way schematic. Again like “Closer,” the play operates via a series of cannily maneuvered shifting allegiances and carefully withheld secrets. Gone, seemingly, is Lucie’s tendency to write off a character by dint of what he does or how he speaks.
It’s characteristic of the evenhandedness of “Love You, Too” that the vaguely yobbo-ish and jingoistic Jim is also likable and desperately sad, his pain matched — if not exceeded — by the Scottish Mick, an old-style Labor supporter whose gregariousness can’t disguise the fact, as Ros puts it, that he’s “damaged goods.” (Mick’s personal hit list includes CDs and private ownership.)
No less damaged, in their way, are the women, especially Shelley, who exists suspended between a son upon whom she is always projecting ailments and an (again unseen) father who seems to be the unspoken source of Shelley’s lingering self-pity. If the women look to be gaining the play’s upper hand, that’s only because they in the end can turn to one another for solace.
The men, by contrast, exist on, and sometimes over, the edge — or, as the not-so-recovering alcoholic Mick puts it, “staring down the barrel of a very long life.”
The specifics of the play are period-perfect, from Mick’s defense of the Beatles over Oasis to a glancing comment about anarchist band Chumbawamba that gets a knowing laugh in view of the group’s headline-making recent misdeeds. (In February, the band poured a bucket of ice water over Labor’s Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott.) Such references aside (preparations for an “AbFab” party will be most accessible to Americans), it’s hard to imagine anyone disengaged from the play’s clear-eyed chronicling of affections gone awry or from a personable cast that sustains a public’s interest in what is surely very private pain.
As lit by Peter Mumford, Ed Devlin’s clever set has its own telling details: a book on dating in one scene has been replaced by one called “Holding Out” in another. And yet it’s hanging on that is tough, as the ironic optimism of the final scene makes clear. The play ends with a new government and the promise of a fresh start, at least for the women.
Lucie’s own voice, though, is heard most loudly in the penultimate scene, held (sometimes hilariously) during the England-Germany soccer playoff of July 1996. All Jim wants to do is watch the game, but his domestic situation demands otherwise. “Who’s winning?” he is innocuously asked, but it’s his reply that lingers, as Jim stares blankly ahead of him and replies, “Nobody.”