Kevin Elyot is a dramatist obsessed by obsession and by narratives so compressed that if your attention wanders for a second, you risk missing the point. It’s a form of throwing down the gauntlet, then, for Elyot to call his latest play “Forty Winks,” especially since the 70-minute one-act has arrived in an always intriguing if overdeliberate staging from Katie Mitchell, better known for her work on Chekhov and the Greeks. Making a rare foray into working with living writers, Mitchell has chosen a script in which events from the past live on in the present: Key moments, in Elyot’s view of things, don’t lessen in importance over time, instead multiplying out across, well, some 40 years.
“Forty Winks” is told in four scenes that cut back and forth in time, while always referring to things that took place well before the play’s start. At the outset, we find Don (Dominic Rowan) in an anonymous suburban London hotel room, surprised by a knock on the door from the abiding love of his life, Diana (Anastasia Hille), whose young brother-in-law Charlie (Paul Ready) has just died. Their nerves are frayed not just by Charlie’s untimely death, but by the unspoken mutual awareness that Don has something or someone concealed in the bathroom.
The next scene rewinds events by a few weeks. Diana and her prickly husband, Howard (Simon Wilson), are dining with Howard’s younger brother, Charlie, whose cardiologist-boyfriend Danny (Stephen Kennedy) lies quasi-comatose nearby, the victim of one too many narcotics during a night of clubbing. Onto the veranda emerges Don, whom Diana has not seen for 14 years. “I was in the vicinity,” Don explains, which is Elyot-speak for the power of memory to prevent any possibility of moving on. (Howard invokes that very phrase near the finish.)
Scene three itself moves on directly from scene one, revealing the identity of the person earlier heard but not seen.
By the fourth scene, it is 16 years later, and Don nearing 50 and now working for Unicef (the choice of job can only be ironic in context) has once again come unexpectedly to call. The only problem: Diana has left Howard, who sits confined to a wheelchair on the veranda, fast asleep.
Starting with Don, whose mind, like his desires, clearly won’t ever come to rest, wakefulness (or not) defines all the characters: Diana and Howard also have a narcoleptic teen daughter (Carey Mulligan).
“Forty Winks” frequently rewards the close attention it demands, even if one can’t help feeling yet again that Elyot has written a jigsaw puzzle play sometimes more interesting to piece together than it is to watch. Perhaps Ian Rickson, who delivered the knockout National staging in 1998 of Elyot’s “The Day I Stood Still,” might have found the pulse behind a precision that is almost suffocatingly exact.
Mitchell’s analytical skills are second to none, but she’s not helped by some slow set changes (the design is by Hildegard Bechtler) that work against the eerily dreamy quality the proceedings ought to have.
Ready stands out as a more febrile version of the obsessive Don. But for a play about a clamped-down passion so intense it would deny any of us sleep, Rowan is rather disappointingly closed off.