Can the Material Girl act? The question will be immaterial to the crowds filling Wyndham’s Theater through July 13, when Madonna’s British theater debut and first stage play in 14 years finishes its limited run. A far more immediate question is what prompted a celebrity who presumably can have her pick of projects to opt for as dispiritingly crude and shallow a showcase as David Williamson’s “Up for Grabs.” A hit last year in the author’s native Sydney (sans, natch, its current lead), this putative satire looks poised to be this season’s second Aussie import to the West End — following Hannie Rayson’s “Life After George” — to fail to replicate its hometown acclaim overseas. But whereas “George” quickly tanked, “Up for Grabs” will grab a star-thirsty public that would most likely pay simply to watch Madonna stand there — which, in the circumstances, might have been a better option than undertaking this play.
In Madonna’s last theater venture, the 1988 Broadway preem of David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow,” the evening was already under way when Karen, the temporary secretary she played, made her entrance. Not here: As if to acknowledge the particular intensity of interest in its leading lady in the capital where shenow lives, Laurence Boswell’s production begins with Madonna’s Manhattan art dealer, Loren, alone center-stage announcing her intention to be rich — to join, says Loren, “the only congregation that matters” (and one, the aud surely notes, inhabited by Madonna herself).
The plot concerns Loren’s increasingly desperate attempt to unload a Jackson Pollock painting, an endeavor that will pit three sets of buyers against one another amid an ever kinkier and more debased sexual milieu.
If successful, the $20 million sale will also rescue Loren and husband Gerry (Tom Irwin), a therapist, from crippling debt, allowing them to remain in designer Jeremy Herbert’s sleek, smart apartment, blessed with views to engender immediate homesickness in any expatriate New Yorker. (Herbert’s sliding set, itself a piece of installation art with a gift for line that Mondrian would have admired, is the evening’s one unalloyed triumph.)
But nothing in the writing of “Up for Grabs” is as interesting, per se, as the juxtaposition between the aspiring, avaricious Loren and the woman playing her; long after mere theater critics have dispensed with the play, cultural theorists may be left pondering Madonna’s attraction to a role that, in many ways, runs so counter to herself.
It’s not only that Loren wants what Madonna clearly has, only to learn — in Loren’s case, that is — that the pursuit of lucre is a liability in life. Elsewhere, the sexual squeamishness driving the dildo-happy (yes, I’m afraid so) first act exists at hilarious odds with a performer who, quite literally, wrote the book on sex. (As Loren recoils from the staging’s much-vaunted lesbian kiss, you find yourself thinking, “Well, Madonna wouldn’t do that!”).
If “Up for Grabs” as often as not cuts against its leading lady’s persona, at other times it plays right into it. Lithe and toned and ready to rock, Madonna offers teasing snatches of song and dance and even a mock-British accent as if to remind us that the personality whom the audience has come to see won’t be bothered with such petty theatrical demands as having to play a character.
A better script might have truly embarrassed a star whose speaking voice betrays a timidity and inexperience further exposed by the predominantly American supporting cast (though on the first night, at least, Madonna sounded far stronger after the intermission). As it is, her undeniable presence sustains interest even when the stale art world jibes — the Pollock barb comes the very week that the Ed Harris film opened in London — and self-analyses wear thin. While the cracks at the expense of Damien Hirst seem dated beyond belief, one can’t help but be intrigued by the post-modern felicity of casting a cultural commodity in a play that takes supposed aim at the commodification of culture.
Where, then, does this leave the rest of a not untalented ensemble? Wide-eyed in the case of Sian Thomas’s inebriated Brit (is there any other kind?), and humiliated and on the outs in the case of the randy and druggy dot-com millionaires played by Daniel Pino and Megan Dodds.
But not even a lachrymose Michael Lerner, a terrific actor trapped in an awful role, ends the play as weepy and abject as Loren, who is forced to confront the fact that “the woman I thought I wanted to be came slamming into the woman I was.” At such moments, one is inclined less to feel for Loren than to ponder Madonna’s decision to lend her superstar status to the part of a go-getter cut down to size whose closing assertion, “I’ll start again,” does not leave one keen to see the sequel.
Up for Grabs