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Eye Contact

One of these days Keir Charles will end up in the play this talented young actor deserves, but for the moment, he -- like his audience -- will have to settle for "Eye Contact." Only minutes ago, or so it seems, he was enlivening a flawed first play, Michele Winstanley's Hampstead Theater "Keepers," and here he is again -- his singularly toothsome grin intact -- moved up the social echelon in a far inferior piece by Neil Monaghan.

With:
Anya - Kelly Brook Gina - Elizabeth Morton Tilly - Anna Madeley Martin - Alexis Conran Hugo - Keir Charles Philip - Terence Booth Emelia - Preeya Kalidas Paris - Vicki Simon

One of these days Keir Charles will end up in the play this talented young actor deserves, but for the moment, he — like his audience — will have to settle for “Eye Contact.” Only minutes ago, or so it seems, he was enlivening a flawed first play, Michele Winstanley’s Hampstead Theater “Keepers,” and here he is again — his singularly toothsome grin intact — moved up the social echelon in a far inferior piece by Neil Monaghan.

The last time out, the 1999 drama school grad played a sweet-natured simpleton of a zoo employee while “Eye Contact” throws Charles into what might be thought of as the lion’s den. In someone else’s hands, his high-spending banker, Hugo, could be hell. But Charles humanizes a type you think you know only to realize you don’t, at least in the hands of a performer seemingly capable of making any stage cliche seem fresh.

Not, mind you, that Charles is the putative occasion of “Eye Contact,” a play perhaps most charitably classified among the also-rans to “Closer,” which is also set (some of the time, anyway) mid the seamier haunts of London’s Soho.

Explaining its sellout status on a rainy Monday evening (not the press night) — not to mention the sometimes comically imposing presence of a security guard or two — is the tabloid sheen given off by leading lady Kelly Brook.

Will this popular English TV personality and model get her kit off, as the Brits so decorously describe it, during the course of the play? Phwoar! What do you think? On the other hand, Brook is no Nicole Kidman just as the similarly anti-erotic “The Blue Room” makes “Eye Contact” look positively psychedelic.

The play’s setting is a West End table-dancing club called Fantasy International, otherwise billed as “Disneyland for grown-ups.”

While the customers — Charles’ Hugo, pre-eminently — trickle in, the bully of an owner, Martin (Alexis Conran), humiliates his female staff. Those include Brook’s pouty Anya, the object of Hugo’s determined affections, and a motley supporting harem, among them, new recruit Emelia, aka Jade (Preeya Kalidas), a fierce north Londoner who resists all efforts to exoticize her because of her Asian background; Paris (Vicki Simon, Trevor Nunn’s Ado Annie in the recent National Theater “Oklahoma!”), the American coke-head who began life as an Illinois dropout named Jean; and the faintly tough-minded Tilly (Anna Madeley), a Russian who owns the patent on Slavic sneers.

Alongside the abject Gina (Elizabeth Morton), the women work the club when not killing time between gigs with one another confronting their (dwindling) public. “I want life to be Whitewater” (huh?) whines Paris, but these strippers know more about spiritual black holes than about the White House: “Tabloid values,” muses Hugo near the start of the second act. “Tits and ass on one page; moral outrage on the other.”

“Eye Contact” feasts greedily on the latter, though anyone who misses Brook’s dimly lit climactic strip tease can check out the full monty in Britain’s top-selling tabloid, the Sun. (Sometimes, the press is so helpful.)

Perhaps inevitably, “Eye Contact” plays like a classic case of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it, too — that’s to say, chastising the audience for the very prurience that has brought them to west London’s Riverside Studios in the first place.

Less inevitable is the lamentable direction of Izzy Mant, which kills every line completely dead, and the acting of most of the cast (Conran is particularly embarrassing as the dad-obsessed Turk), though Brook can certainly portray petulance.

Amid the overwritten bromides and class-driven plot mechanics are some pretty funny cultural stereotypesAccording to “Eye Contact,” Americans are hug-obsessed. Well, not this observer, whose arms stayed folded throughout.

Eye Contact

Riverside Studios 3; 156 seats; £16.50 ($23) top

Production: LONDON - A Theater Machine in association with Riverside Studios presentation of a play in two acts by Neil Monaghan. Directed by Izzy Mant.

Creative: Sets, Matthew Atwood; costumes, Sara Calabrese; lighting, Atwood and Nigel Catmur; music, Mike Woolmans; executive producer, Zoe Nathenson; general manager, Matthew Mitchell. Opened Nov. 23, 2000; reviewed Nov. 27. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast: Anya - Kelly Brook Gina - Elizabeth Morton Tilly - Anna Madeley Martin - Alexis Conran Hugo - Keir Charles Philip - Terence Booth Emelia - Preeya Kalidas Paris - Vicki SimonWith: Mark Archer, Paul Sangam.

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