“Wild East” is possibly best described as the funniest play Ionesco never wrote, but even that doesn’t do justice to the job interview gone eccentrically, even apocalyptically haywire that constitutes April De Angelis’ new play. Some will think the 80-minute piece no more than an extended stunt, and there’s no doubt one of its strengths is it knows when to stop. But auds in search of a fresh theatrical voice can start the celebrations now: For all that is unexceptional about Mark Thompson’s deliberately drab set, this is easily the loopiest evening in London.
Even the design, as it happens, turns out to be a gag in an expert production from helmer Phyllida Lloyd that builds laugh upon laugh into a kind of dizzying comic grace that, as with much of the best comedy, is also somewhat sad.
Certainly, one look at the hapless Frank (Tom Brooke), and you don’t know whether to chuckle or weep. An overeager nebbish possessed of the sort of dimness Mrs. Malaprop might have admired (he intended to study archaeology at college but got confused and ended up doing anthropology instead), Frank is the would-be stooge who ends up being far wilier than he appears.
At first, Frank seems a convenient doormat for the jockeying of position of the two women, Dr. Pitt (Sylvestra Le Touzel) and Dr. Gray (Helen Schlesinger). They have come to ply him with questions, all the while doing what they can to shore up their own positions within a faceless corporation. That the women apparently have their own shared history as lovers passes virtually unrecognized by Frank, who looks scarcely capable of comprehending events beyond the end of his nose.
But don’t be fooled. Who’s actually putting the squeeze on whom? The answer is increasingly up for grabs as the play continues, especially once our trio begins playing to the Big Brother-style camera that is recording the meeting for posterity (and for the corporate bigwigs). Dr. Gray can stop the film if necessary, but what she can’t forestall is De Angelis’ cunning elevation of a familiar scenario into a gentle essay in transcendence. Let’s put it this way: Not for nothing is there a set credit in the program for something called Miraculous Engineering.
The play, too, remains one step ahead of its public. As played by a bespectacled Brooke with a gangly benignity reminiscent of a younger, slimmer Jim Broadbent, Frank is no mere buffoon, however ludicrous his tales of life in his beloved Russia, the country to which he hopes to return.
Nor do his interlocutors necessarily possess all the power. For all the starchy waspishness of her opening scenes (her initial putdown of Frank is pricelessly brusque), Dr. Pitt is on the rebound from both a failed relationship and a violent incident in Russia that has left her suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and deeply unsure of her position within the firm.
Dressed for a glamorous fight to the death — the killer clothes are also by Thompson — Dr. Pitt ends up the shamanic agent of the play’s much-discussed word “soul.” To reveal more would be to give away the surprises of a play whose sudden mood swings are part of its charm.
Le Touzel brings a snapdragon authority to the character’s more confident moments, as well as an incipient pathos to Dr. Pitt’s assertion that “it’s wild out there” — as it soon turns out to be within a meeting room far easier to enter than to leave.
Schlesinger, a giddy Court presence last year in “The Weather” and “Bear Hug,” doesn’t have as much to work with as the other two performers; one senses her straining, especially early on, to catch the degree of stylization required by the writing. (The strain was evident not least in several line fluffs.)
On the other hand, it’s not easy to feign a seizure one minute, as Le Touzel is asked to do, and send the spirits soaring the next. “This is some interview,” Frank muses near the end. You’re telling me.