“The Boys in the Band” gets cited on cue in “You Couldn’t Make It Up,” British writer-director Patrick Wilde’s play that is otherwise lacking in the self-consciousness that attends such vague American equivalents in the gay-boy-banter genre as, say, “The Last Sunday in June.” What Wilde’s play also lacks is a decisive focus and an ability to keep its earnestness in check. Like Wilde’s best-known play to date, the 1993 “What’s Wrong With Angry?” (itself the basis for a subsequent film version, “Get Real”), his new play wears on its sleeve an abundant heart alongside a hectoring impulse that leaves virtually every character at one point or another sounding like an authorial mouthpiece.
A sizable house on a sultry Sunday afternoon on the north London fringe suggests Wilde certainly is reaching an audience, at least in Hampstead. Now if he would only jettison the thesis-mongering and sharpen his playwright’s pen, Wilde could build a theatrical career less overtly reliant on that other, rather more celebrated Wilde, namely Oscar, whom “You Couldn’t…” is inordinately, if perhaps inevitably, fond of invoking.
Patrick Wilde has called his script a “fantasy,” but it comes to the tiny New End stage firmly rooted in the facts of sexual confusion and the British class divide, as well as numerous localized references — Russell Harty, TV presenters Richard and Judy — that may limit the play’s broader-based appeal. Older gay man Philip (Adam Redmayne) is in fact a writer — his latest work, we discover in the second act, is being narrated by, yes, Oscar Wilde — who is confronting the leave-taking from his home of his lodger of two years, aspiring singer Kevin (David Paul West).
A northerner who has softened his accent in response, at least partially, to the bullying it prompted in the past, Kevin has made a reluctant career of hustling in order to finance his ambitions as a performer. But is he actually gay? His dilemma finds a parallel of sorts in the trajectory of the model-handsome John (Robert Sutton), an incipient boy-band member whose laddish xenophobia prompts the defection of girlfriend Angel (Emma Linley).
On hand to dispense advice and the always likable mot juste is computer programmer Max (Andy Killick), who becomes more pally with John than some in their group might wish. At least when they can be bothered to turn their attention from football and the World Cup qualifying match between England and Germany that give the play its context.
The play takes aim at an ample quota of targets, from the synthetic nature of today’s pop industry to the ceaseless homophobia of this country’s tabloid press, who find a prize subject of scrutiny in the closeted John. While unimpeachable on their own terms, the litany of arguments drags the play down. So do the numerous interludes — heralded by a hyperactive smoke machine — that find a black-clad chorus in sunglasses mouthing off on one topic or another, though not without the occasional whiff of self-mockery. (“I’ve got queers/coming out of my ears,” goes a rhyme early on.)
One feels the play serving a more directly educative function than a comparable American script might, which perhaps speaks to the difference between the two cultures more than it does to the material itself. Oddly, given that this is, after all, the supposedly irony-laden land known as Britain, the play suffers from a notable absence of the stuff as well as a tendency to underscore its Big Scenes with a heavy directorial hand. (Wilde is his own director, not always a good idea.)
But the cast, many of them alums of “What’s Wrong With Angry?,” perform with commitment and energy throughout and, insofar the script allows it, even seem to be having a good time, keeping the beat of Julian and Stephen Butler’s original score and Beverly Denim’s dance steps. What could be wrong with that?