When former German international soccer player and sometime English league player Thomas Hitzelsperger came out earlier this month it made headlines not just in the U.K. but around the world. In the macho arena of professional sports in the U.K. and the U.S., coming out is still extraordinarily rare, which makes “The Pass” intensely topical. That’s not, however, what makes John Donnelly’s new play so striking. Abandoning the high-minded/low-drama didactic approach of issue-based theatre, this taut four-hander, skillfully directed by “Once” helmer John Tiffany, fascinates by consistently wrong-footing audiences’ expectations.

Spanning thirteen years in three hotel rooms over three time periods, the play examines the dreams and fears of seventeen-year-old British white hopeful Jason (Russell Tovey) who, in the opening scene, is sharing a room with his friend and Nigerian team-mate Ade (Gary Carr.) Both of them on the brink of major league signing and pumped-up with a near toxic combination of testosterone and tomorrow’s pre-match tension, the lads cannot sleep.

Director Tiffany keeps them bouncing with energy as they jockey for position with one another, constantly defining themselves via the over-sexualized language of teens. Pushing the edges of each other’s tolerance, they both laughingly lob insults at each other but it gradually becomes clear that Jason, the faster thinker of the two, is playing power games as Donnelly entertainingly illustrates the thin line between banter and bullying. “Is this a bit racist?” queries Ade as their mutual bad behavior threatens to slip out of hand. “Nah,” retorts Jason, “Just shits and giggles.”

Yet the more wildly they brag and taunt, the more legible Donnelly’s threatening undertow becomes. The tug-of-war tension between them keep stakes grippingly high enough to land a climactic punch. Neither of the lads reacts as expected and the adroit cut-off of the opening scene — leaving the characters on the cusp of a compromising decision — sets off an emotional chain reaction for the remainder of the play.

There’s an equal air of unease escalating into unspoken threat in the following scene. Jump-cutting seven years, success story Jason is in his hotel room with a motor-mouthed table-dancer Lyndsey (perfectly energized Lisa McGrillis). Excited by his fame, she appears to be a woman who knows how to take care of herself but Donnelly is springing a Mamet-like switch that once again reverses expectations and adds emotional resonance to Jason’s plight. The final pair of scenes of mounting danger find Jason at 29 living the dream but struggling with the fallout of toxic levels of denial.

Nico Mirallegro is sparky as the chancer bellhop who strikes (un)lucky but Tiffany’s fashioning of all four performances balances attack with engrossing stillness. Witnessing the destruction of the friendship, Carr’s Ade is immensely watchable even when his character’s role in the final confrontations requires a degree of contrivance.

But any awkwardness in that set-up is overridden by Tovey’s bravura handling of the contradictions inexorably tearing Jason apart. Counter-intuitively, Tovey amplifies Jason’s desperation by appearing ever calmer and colder as the weight of his caustic self-loathing threatens to stifle not just his own feelings.

In outline, “The Pass” might be mistaken for the standard-issue cost-of-fame scenario familiar from numerous Hollywood models up to and including “A Star Is Born.” Yet for all the wordiness of the bullish dialogue, it’s the underpinning sensitivity and sadness of Donnelly’s adroit rebooting of the format that makes it engrossing. The workings and fallout of internalized homophobia have rarely been so so vividly presented. On either side of Laura Hopkins sleek set, audiences are propelled into the gap between the world that Tovey’s magnetic Jason so successfully inhabits and his ruinous self-knowledge.

London Theater Review: ‘The Pass’

<p>Royal Court Upstairs, London; 91 seats; £20, $33 top. Opened, reviewed Jan. 17, 2014. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.</p>

  • Production: <p>A Royal Court Theatre presentation of a play in two acts by John Donnelly.</p>
  • Crew: <p>Directed by John Tiffany. Sets and costums, Laura Hopkins; lighting, Chahine Yavroyan; sound, Carolyn Downing; production stage managers, Sarah Helicar and Sophie Rubenstein.</p>
  • Cast: <p>Russell Tovey, Gary Carr, Lisa McGrillis, Nico Mirallegro.</p>