It’s one of the various pleasures of “Bones,” Peter Straughan’s imperfect but often edgily funny play, that a show so steeped in the movies should seem fully at home on stage. The second in an ad hoc trio of Hampstead Theater plays exploring issues of Jewish identity, “Bones” is at its least comfortable when most sententious — when its characters, Jewish or otherwise, start ruminating about hate and history and codes of living that lie outside morality: There’s “no good, no bad, just what you do,” we’re told at the top of the second act, “and that is what you are.”
Away from such punditry, “Bones” takes abundant pleasure in wedding a Jez Butterworth-style scenario — Quentin Tarantino gone English — to an exercise in Newcastle mock-machismo. Indeed, the play arrives in London having premiered nearly three years ago at Newcastle’s Live Theater, where Straughan was at the time writer-in-residence. If this is representative of the sort of work enlivening new writing in the English regions (and cheers, too, for Max Roberts’ nervy direction), then “Bones” alone proves we London-based critics ought to get out more.
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The setting is a far-from-busy porn cinema in 1962 Gateshead, a community across the Tyne River from Newcastle. (The back of Perry John Hudson’s set flickers intermittently with the grainy films on view.) The makeshift movie theater’s young Jewish entrepreneur Ruben (Jonathan Slinger) can’t believe his luck when a swaggering East Ender (David Cardy) enters the premises and announces himself as the notorious English criminal Reggie Kray. The would-be Reg possesses the requisite venal bravura — worse, he carries with him a case full of fingers (“little sacrifices,” he calls them) — but Ruben has the smarts, or so he thinks. And before long, the cinema’s initially hesitant co-owner has bound and gagged a nationally known gangster in return for a ransom payment to enable Ruben and older brother Benny (Deka Walmsley) to forge a new life.
It’s Hollywood proper that propels the characters in the play, who speak a language culled from “Key Largo” and “Casablanca” while, in at least one case, dressing as Tony Curtis from “Some Like It Hot.” But for all its indebtedness to filmdom’s golden age, “Bones” walks its own distinctive theatrical beat. A pair of farcically inept employees, Beck (Trevor Fox) and Moon (Michael Hodgson), are on hand as none-too-capable henchmen with dreams of their own.
The play is compelling enough on its own terms, and Straughan’s dialogue sufficiently spiky, that I’m not sure it really even needs to raise the issue of Jewish self-loathing. Far more trenchant is the playwright’s anatomy of a social landscape populated by nobodies keen to achieve something, whether in the world of cards or crime. And whereas many plays of this sort can run out of steam, “Bones” saves the best for last, closing on a note of narrative cunning that cannot be revealed here. Suffice it to say that the writing’s affection for films carries right through to Cannes 2001 and beyond, since the subtitle of “Bones” — you sense by play’s end — could easily be “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”