A top-notch acting ensemble, the backing of one of the world’s great theater companies, a whopping 19 weeks’ rehearsal time, and a berth in a London venue whose small size means relatively light box office pressure: a playwright’s wildest fantasy, surely. But while there’s a great deal to admire about “God in Ruins,” the play that resulted from Scottish writer/director Anthony Neilson’s encounter with these dream conditions feels loose overall and not-quite-achieved. Perhaps, the missing ingredient for this famously chaotic creator was time pressure.
As is typical of Neilson’s recent work (“The Wonderful World of Dissocia,” “Realism”), “God in Ruins” is a surreal, scatological, often hilarious nest of theatrical frames and conceits, here with a seasonal flair. In a prologue, Scrooge and Bob Cratchit meet a year after “A Christmas Carol” ended. Scrooge has been rehabilitated beyond recognition and has become such a jovial, overfriendly bore, that Bob is forced to tell him there’s no room for him at the Cratchit family table on Christmas.
This funny-sad episode, beautifully acted by Patrick O’Kane and Sean Kearns, establishes the overarching theme of men alone at Christmastime; it’s typical of the play’s sometimes opaque structure, however, that it takes a few more scenes before the aud realizes this presages the main plot, which is also structured (sort of) as a latter-day “Christmas Carol” story.
Brian Wilkins (Brian Doherty) is a self-loathing, drunken Irish television exec living in contemporary London. On Christmas Eve, he is visited by several spectral figures, including the ghost of his philandering father and Scrooge himself. The action, somewhat confusingly, mixes flashbacks and present-day scenes; a thin line of plot eventually emerges involving Scrooge helping Brian make contact with his estranged adolescent daughter in — of all places — a staged version of the virtual reality site “Second Life.”
The lack of structural and storytelling clarity is offset by play’s wacked-out, sometimes groan-worthy humor. But excellent acting from the multicultural ensemble adds to the evening’s energy and appeal. In particular, Doherty does yeoman work eliciting auds’ sympathy for Brian, even at his narcissistic, self-pitying worst.
About two-thirds through the evening, however, Neilson loses control of the narrative with the arrival into the auditorium of an Iraq War-vet panhandler (if he wants the aud to believe the show is being interrupted by a real panhandler, why is the character played by an actor the aud has seen before?). Even more implausibly comes Brian’s 11th-hour admission he might be gay, something vaguely hinted at in previous scenes with an actor he meets in an encounter group (Mark Theodore), but not nearly apparent enough in Doherty’s ultra-straight playing. These scenes come across as under-rehearsed attempts to bring the play’s strands together.
RSC director Michael Boyd showed admirable creativity in inviting Neilson to work with one of the company’s acting ensembles; the resulting production offers a welcome alternative to the mostly kid-oriented fare being presented in London this time of year. One wonders, however, if the play might have been twice as good if it had been created in half the time.