A baby’s cries conclude “Sleep With Me,” screenwriter and novelist Hanif Kureishi’s first new play in 16 years, but what we hear for much of the evening are the (mostly) brutish bleatings of so many childlike adults. Although the play’s setting and structure — and even some of its amorous miscalculations — suggest Chekhov, “Sleep With Me” is ultimately too sour and self-regarding an occasion to bear the comparison out.
The play may win applause in some quarters for bare-faced honesty, and yet on that front Kureishi is an unfortunate victim of timing: In its abrasions, “Sleep With Me” can’t help but come across as a son of “Closer” (which premiered in the same National Theater auditorium two years ago), without Patrick Marber’s sustaining sense of metaphor and wit. In the end, you’re impressed by the commitment of an extraordinarily impassioned cast as its members cut a hurtful path across Tim Hatley’s garden set, cattails and all. But you’re equally worn out by Kureishi’s insistence on grinding all his characters down, which leads to heartache without catharsis, pain but very little pathos.
Indeed, it’s rare for a play so full of remonstration and self-reproach to leave so little impact, notwithstanding the best efforts of director Anthony Page — ably recovering from his dull NT “The Forest” earlier this year — to animate what eventually resembles an exercise in veiled autobiography more likely to be purgative for the playwright than anyone else. Last year, Kureishi elicited his share of local opprobrium for his novel “Intimacy,” one man’s confessional on the eve of his departure from his partner, which left commentators balking at a distasteful roman a clef.
Naysayers may be even more aghast at “Sleep With Me,” not least because the clear Kureishi surrogate — Sean Chapman’s Oscar-winning screenwriter Stephen (in real life, Kureishi has an Oscar nomination, for “My Beautiful Laundrette,” but not a win) — is so irredeemably vile. Whatever this play’s faults, letting its author off the hook (last year’s closest equivalent was Doug Lucie’s excellent “Love You, Too”) does not figure among them.
“Sleep With Me” wastes no time parading before us its characters’ disaffection and misdeeds. Stephen is sick of wife Julie (Sian Thomas) if not yet of their kids, who are looked after by Lorraine (Kacey Ainsworth), the young and available nanny who entertains the weekend guests in more ways than one. Those include Barry (Peter Wight), the pamphleteering leftist, whose presence seems prompted more by the need within the play to generate debate than any sense that he belongs to its world, and his wife Sophie (a radiant Penny Downie) , an ex of Stephen’s who just may throw in her cramped English life for a new one in the U.S. In the polemical manner that one associates with David Hare, Barry is a schoolteacher, which makes him a ready adversary (and hapless sexual competitor) to media types Russell (Adrian Lukis) and especially Charles (Jonathan Hyde), one of whom is reduced late on to scraping cocaine off the other one’s face.
Sex and drugs come easily in the milieu of “Sleep With Me,” an exhortation that gets repeated several times during the play; fulfillment, needless to say, does not, with the play’s women in particular left reeling at the capriciousness of their men. “Where is the love in you?” Julie asks toward the end, though she’s clearly speaking into the wind. Love is no more relevant to the liaisons here on view than excellence is to the assorted projects — as far as one can make them out — that have made the characters media stars: Instead, Kureishi’s octet weaves an ever more overlapping web of intrigue, desire and deceit, with everyone democratically awarded a Big Scene, not to mention enough up-to-the-minute bitchery (and some rather demeaning nudity) to keep the audience tuned in.
The author owes an incalculable debt, too, to a cast that tries valiantly to win us over to the side of people whom you wouldn’t want to spend 10 minutes with, let alone a weekend idyll. While the program doesn’t bother granting her a name — she’s billed as Russell’s girlfriend, even though she is named in the published text as Anna — Michelle Gomez makes a particularly alluring Scottish siren as the acknowledged partner of one man and clandestine lover of another.
And long after one has tired of her duplicity, Ainsworth’s working-class Lorraine — as is the way in the meritocratic nature of things — gets what may be the nearest the play will allow to the last laugh. Upon hearing that she’s off to try her hand as a singer, the other characters (and the audience) scoff. But minutes later, the same woman sings out in a strong, clear voice, and we revise our estimation. In vocal power — if not personal behavior — at least there’s hope.