Projections on the stage curtain may announce that “Four Nights in Knaresborough” is set in 1171, but don’t you believe it: Teacher-turned-writer Paul Corcoran’s debut play is firmly rooted in the laddish, expletive-laden present. Had this Tricycle Theater premiere arrived in less distinguished company, one would simply advise Corcoran not to give up the day job, since he brings little to a ludicrously revisionist take on Thomas Becket’s assassination beyond a ferociousembrace of all things anachronistic. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral” never sounded like this.
Somewhere along the way, however, the play corralled the talents of Richard Wilson — one of Britain’s most-loved comic actors — as director, alongside a cast including the film world’s increasingly popular Britboys James Purefoy and Jonny Lee Miller, the latter making his first stage appearance in five years. (The opening night crowd included David Aukin, the two thesps’ co-producer on Patricia Rozema’s upcoming — and stunning — film of “Mansfield Park.”) All one can do, then, is wish the entire company a speedy return to the stage in happier circumstances, since, in the parlance of the play itself, “Four Nights in Knaresborough” is flat-out tosh.
As revived last spring by the Roundabout on Broadway, James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter” displayed its peculiar colors as a historical drama whose putative weight was at distinct odds with its jarringly contemporary, anything-for-a-laugh repartee. That play is a model of authorial restraint compared to “Four Nights,” which intermittently raises pressing concerns about notions of loyalty, justice and sexuality only to deflate them just as quickly under an onslaught of alternately camp and gross badinage. So obsessed, in fact, is the first act with a “bouncing turd” and the ceaselessly priapic needs of Miller’s cock-of-the-walk Brito that the play comes to resemble “Blackadder” meets “American Pie” — though it’s not nearly as fun as either.
Brito is merely the randiest of the four murderous knights of Thomas Becket, the martyred archbishop of Canterbury who fell foul of Henry II and paid with his life. “Four Nights” brings Becket onstage briefly at the start — performer Alan Parnaby ably returns in two further roles — but soon becomes more interested in the quartet that did him in, who are slogging away a long year at Knaresborough Castle in Yorkshire, where they have gone to escape public opprobrium.
In between swigs of vinegary wine and awful puns (“He likes kids,” Brito remarks of a priest whose affections extend both to goats and little boys), the foursome link up in a round robin of (mostly) unreciprocated affections. “Old shirtlifter” (i.e. gay) Traci (Christopher Fulford) wants to be both father figure and lover to Brito, who in turn is pursuing local witch-girl Catherine (Mali Harries), whom the incipiently mad Morville (Purefoy) also lusts after. Fourth assassin Fitz (Martin Marquez) — also gay — isn’t fleshed out until the closing minutes, when he, too, succumbs to the prevailing imagery with talk of “hemorrhoids erupting on a royal ass.”
It’s possible to applaud Corcoran’s desire to liberate period drama from potential high-mindedness while nonetheless tiring of the facetiousness that the playwright has settled for instead. So uneasy is the tone that it’s virtually impossible for much of the first act to tell whether Wilson, as director, is even playing it straight. The script’s aspirations become clearer after intermission, not least because the lovesick Traci begins delivering absurdly portentous metaphors. (History, we’re told, isn’t “a huge lake” but “a powerful, fast-flowing river where you can’t see the banks.”)
Fulford, like the rest of the cast, rides out such moments with conviction, while Purefoy even manages to convey genuine anguish amid the sophomoric antics that animate Julian McGowan’s gloomy, spectrally lit (by Mick Hughes) set. In an utterly charmless role, Miller must rely on charisma to navigate the play’s numerous comic blind alleys, though how he survives a dental torture scene of “Marathon Man” proportions is anybody’s guess.