Sexual Perversity in Chicago

The glare of the West End all but wipes out "Sexual Perversity in Chicago," a once-significant American play that now looks small in most aspects except the commercial. Yoking three film and TV names pretty much new to the London stage, David Mamet's series of snapshots of the sex wars circa 1974 struggles to keep the audience's interest.

Deborah - Kelly Reilly Joan - Minnie Driver Bernie - Hank Azaria Danny - Matthew Perry

The glare of the West End all but wipes out “Sexual Perversity in Chicago,” a once-significant American play that now looks small in most aspects except the commercial, where this starry entry will no doubt hit it big. Yoking three film and TV names who are pretty much new to the London stage (L.A.-based Englishwoman Minnie Driver did a local guest appearance in “The Play What I Wrote”) with a junior U.K. theater semi-veteran, Kelly Reilly, who easily comes out the best, David Mamet’s series of snapshots of the sex wars circa 1974 struggles to keep the audience’s interest over a scant 80 minutes.

While some will show up to gawk at “Friends” star Matthew Perry in the flesh, more enlightened theatergoers may end up mesmerized by Jeremy Herbert’s seriously striking sets. But nothing can circumvent the stale feel of writing that over time has been superseded not least by the vitriolic landscape of Neil LaBute and, especially, Patrick Marber’s infinitely more corrosive “Closer.” Not for the first time, yesterday’s sensation is today’s big yawn.

The same play, to be fair, was already showing its age in the (inferior) Atlantic Theater revival three years ago Off Broadway. In my years in London, “Sexual Perversity” has often been the testing ground of choice for U.K. drama students eager to give their American accents a go, and the play just about gets by in a pub-theater context. But pre-dating (just) “American Buffalo,” not to mention such subsequent Mamet scorchers as “Glengarry Glen Ross” and even “The Old Neighborhood,” “Sexual Perversity” in its current spotlight seems, dare one say it, perverse, as if a clever but self-conscious exercise in language has seen its currency slip away.

That’s not by any means to discount the ongoing pertinence of Mamet’s theme: the abrasions — linguistic, social and, one feels in the play’s most loutish character, Bernie (Hank Azaria), potentially even physical — that accompany the mismatch between men and women. While kindergarten teacher Joan (Driver) speaks of “our attempt to become more human,” Mamet charts just the opposite, chronicling the descent into the sexual abyss of Bernie’s friend Danny (Perry), following the dissolution — much to Joan’s apparent delight — of her roommate Deborah’s (Reilly) short-lived liaison with assistant office manager Danny.

The play’s narrative arc lands its men and women in the separate camps they occupied at the start, and the sting, such as it is, comes from the realization that Danny has become capable of objectifying women without beginning to comprehend them. (By the end, he has joined Bernie in foaming at the mouth at the prospect of “snatch.”) The outlook for the fairer sex, meanwhile, hardly gives cause for glee: It’s no accident, surely, that Joan is seen reading to her class the potentially self-incriminating story of a loveless “hag.”

Lindsay Posner previously directed a forgettable “American Buffalo” at the Young Vic in 1997, and, visually at least, his command of Mamet has improved. On the one hand, you could argue that Herbert’s multiple settings play into the stop-start nature of the writing, each vignette punctuated by place-defining projections (and period music to match) that in turn give way to reveal the characters starkly lit (by Nigel Edwards) in a clean-lined spatial limbo. At the same time, the severe geometry of the design is both engaging on its own terms (the same designer brought a comparable finesse to his look last summer for Madonna’s London stage vehicle, “Up for Grabs”) and of a thematic piece with the fractured sexual mathematics of the play — though I venture a bet that few would guess the arrival of the climactic scene were it not met by the words “The End.”

If the conclusion tends to prompt relief, credit an unbalanced company who rarely begin to communicate what chill remains to be cast by the play. You should feel a jolt, for instance, when Danny says the word “cunt,” a verbal indication of his descent into Bernie’s brutish and destructive territory. But speaking in a high-pitched voice seemingly without personality, stage neophyte Perry is committed but colorless (and excessively keen on the double take), while Azaria, by contrast, comes across as so overeager that his Midwest accent could just as well come from Mars. The women — “The Graduate” alum Reilly, in particular — fare better, but they’re fighting a losing battle in an attempt to invigorate a play whose candid language can’t disguise what now seems overfamiliar and hollow at the core.

Popular on Variety

Sexual Perversity in Chicago

Comedy Theater, London; 780 seats; £36 ($59) top

Production: A Mark Rubinstein, Sally Greene for Old Vic Prods. and Sonia Friedman Prods. presentation of a play by David Mamet in one act. Directed by Lindsay Posner.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Jeremy Herbert; lighting, Nigel Edwards; music, Terry Davies; sound, Matt McKenzie. Opened, reviewed May 14, 2003. Running time: 1 HOUR, 20 MIN.

Cast: Deborah - Kelly Reilly Joan - Minnie Driver Bernie - Hank Azaria Danny - Matthew Perry

More Legit

  • Secret Derren Brown review

    Broadway Review: 'Derren Brown: Secret'

    Audiences love to be fooled, whether it’s with clever plotting with a twist, the arrival of an unexpected character or even a charming flimflam man with a British accent. The latter is Derren Brown, and he’s entertaining audiences for a limited run at the Cort Theatre, where he is playing head-scratching mind games and other [...]

  • Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica ParkerNew York

    Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker to Reunite on Broadway for 'Plaza Suite'

    Real-life couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker are hitting the Broadway stage again for a reboot of the late Neil Simon’s 1968 play “Plaza Suite.” The staging will mark the Broadway directorial debut of Tony award-winner John Benjamin Hickey. Set in New York City’s Plaza Hotel in Suite 719, “Plaza Suite” is comprised of [...]

  • Derren Brown

    Listen: Derren Brown Spills His Broadway 'Secret'

    Derren Brown has spent a lot of his career performing magic shows on theater stages — but he’ll be the first to tell you that magic usually doesn’t make for great theater. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “If you’re a magician of any sort, you can make stuff happen with a click of your [...]

  • A Very Expensive Poison review

    London Theater Review: 'A Very Expensive Poison'

    Vladimir Putin owes his power to the stage. The president’s closest advisor trained as a theatre director before applying his art to politics, and ran Russia like a staged reality, spinning so many fictions that truth itself began to blur. By scrambling the story and sowing confusion, Putin could exert absolute control. The long-awaited latest [...]

  • Betrayal review Tom Hiddleston

    Broadway Review: 'Betrayal' With Tom Hiddleston

    and Zawe Ashton as a long-married couple and Charlie Cox as the secret lover. Director Jamie Lloyd’s impeccable direction — now on Broadway, after a hot-ticket London run — strips Pinter’s 1978 play to its bare bones: the excruciating examination of the slow death of a marriage.  It’s a daring approach, leaving the characters nowhere [...]

  • Jayne Houdyshell arrives at the 71st

    'The Music Man' Revival Adds Four Tony Winners to Broadway Cast

    Tony Award-winners Jayne Houdyshell, Jefferson Mays, Marie Mullen and Shuler Hensley will join stars Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster in the upcoming Broadway revival of “The Music Man.” In “The Music Man,” Jackman will play con-man Harold Hill, who arrives in a small, fictional Iowa town called River City and urges the townsfolk to start [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content