Drug addiction, alcoholism, adultery, rock ‘n’ roll — sounds like an exciting night at the theater, right? The problem with Nick Grosso’s awkward new comedy is that it barely depicts any of this. It just talks about it. A star of 1990s “In-Yer-Face” theater, with a flair for eccentric dialogue, Grosso has lain low since 2002’s “Kosher Harry” at the same venue. Now he’s back with a play about addiction, on which audiences are unlikely to find themselves hooked. Grosso’s firecracker wordplay is sporadically intact but cannot sustain a two-act play that articulates everything and dramatizes very little.
The scene is an elegant warehouse apartment, home to Katie (Indira Varma) and her second husband, the writer and ex-addict Frank (James Lance). On a sofa in front of their plasma-screen TV, Katie and friends Rosanna (Lesley Sharp) and Deanne (Lisa Palfrey) gather to watch talent show “The X-Factor.” But, unusually, Simon Cowell isn’t the center of attention here. Instead, the evening devolves into a booze-fueled talking-shop about Katie’s codependency issues, Deanne’s compulsion to drink and Rosanna’s obsession with the antics of her (also drug-addicted) ex-husband.
You can’t fault the performances. Sharp and Palfrey kick-start proceedings with roaring energy, invading Katie’s apartment like conquerors, then pillaging the rum. They make improbable friends. Sharp’s Rosanna is a tough Cockney cynic with a rasping laugh that recalls “Carry On” film star Sid James. On vertiginous high heels, and even when she’s barefoot, Rosanna prowls like a velociraptor — and she’s just as vicious. She and Palfrey’s dim but cheerful Deanne make a tight team. It’s harder to see how Katie fits in. Sensitive and sophisticated, Katie is Rosanna’s opposite. One is understanding, the other condemnation. One is acceptance, the other rage.
Initially, it seems Grosso is sending up therapy-speak and psychobabble, as Katie parrots high-minded homilies in the face of Rosanna’s brute practicality. But the psychobabble becomes the play: a staged argument about whether addiction (to drugs, videogames, TV) is illness or self-indulgence. The debate even extends to the behavior of offstage characters, whom we’ve neither met nor care about. Everyone, onstage and off, is an addict. This is thematic overkill: Grosso, like his characters, doesn’t know when to stop.
There’s a hint of possible dramatic incident, when Frank fails to return from a trip next door to fetch ice. Is he scoring drugs? But the play soon reverts to couch-bound chat, as each character gets a speech about damage, compulsion and the difficulty of saying no. It’s an ineffectual way to dramatize a subject seemingly close to Grosso’s heart. Director Deborah Bruce does her best to relieve the inertia. There’s a likeable visual gag when the girlfriends swoop to comfort Deanne, and hapless Frank is bumped off the sofa. And, like the unheard “X-Factor” wannabes, Grosso’s dialogue sometimes sings — in Rosanna’s hilarious tirade against “tortured artists,” for example. The problem is, “Ingredient X” overdoses on chat — and goes cold turkey on drama.