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 But nothing can circumvent the stale feel of writing that over time has been superseded not least by the vitriolic landscape of Neil LaBute and, especially, Patrick Marber’s infinitely more corrosive “Closer.”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.