The times may have changed from the early ’60s to the late ’90s, but not necessarily the three careless characters in Simon Gray’s “Japes,” which debuted on the West End in 2001 and is having its American preem in a miscast production at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater.
The play’s British brothers and the woman they both love live in a time capsule of perpetual adolescence, permissiveness and co-dependency, beginning in an era when love was free and forgiving, and ending with a lonely present and a legacy of scorn and regret. Over the course of nearly 30 years, they enable each other’s worst traits as they go through a series of estrangements, reunions, binges and recoveries.
But it’s a long, tough slog in this staging, which lacks the usual snap, wit and precision we’ve come to expect from Gray, writer of such razor-sharp masterworks as “Butley,” “Otherwise Engaged” and “The Common Pursuit.” Even in other theatrical hands, future of the play looks tenuous on these shores.
Older brother Michael (Sam Robards) and Japes (Matt McGrath) share the family house and also the woman in their lives, Anita (Francesca Faridany). But the ties that bind them are guilt, denial, dependency, loyalty and habit, all of which offer dramatic potential but rarely coalesce in this unfocused production.
A prolific and sure-footed author bent on endlessly redrafting his books as well as his life, Michael inherited “the success gene.” Japes, who has a bad leg caused by an accident by Michael when they were boys, is the poet-academic, a feckless, pot-smoking, liquor-swilling existential man. Anita, the most perplexing of the trio, is an unfinished woman, insecure in her role as artist, writer and mother.
Gray has said this is his most personal play, with elements of autobiography, especially the portrait of his brother. But personal is not necessarily the best perspective for a playwright. The play rambles on as the decades go by with little effect on these self-indulgent, charmless people.
The ineffectiveness of the characters could be due to the casting. With a more charismatic woman at the center, aud might understand and care about the sibling rivalry. But Faridany’s cool, distant Anita seems far from the dazzling love of anyone’s life or a waif needing protection. She’s much better when she plays her character’s hard-edged goth daughter at the end of the play. At least the daughter’s identity and purpose, however obnoxious, are sharp.
Although usually capable actors, Robards and McGrath don’t have the sibling look, tone or connective spirit. Robards takes his character’s blandness and passivity too much to heart, and McGrath’s impetuous ennui is tiresome rather than romantic.
“Japes” may have been written as an homage to a lost soul, but in this production it’s the audience that’s at sea.