To hell with harmony: “Mood Music” is all dischord. The first play in more than five years by Joe Penhall (“Mindhunter”) presents a sharp dissection of power in the music industry. A horribly watchable, bitterly enjoyable black comedy debuting at the Old Vic, it sets a manipulative middle-aged male mogul against an impressionable young female singer-songwriter in his charge. To call their dispute a case of creative differences would be to describe a war of attrition as a slight spat.
Ben Chaplin’s Bernard is a platinum-selling producer (artist-producer, he insists) and a gold-plated s—. His latest find, Seána Kerslake’s Cat, is a rising star with one of the most exciting voices he’s ever heard. Or so he tells her. It helps that female artists come cheaper than their male counterparts, that they sell more and demand less. His job is to turn her songs into hits, applying his experience and expertise, his instincts, to “improve” her sound. He swaps rough guitar riffs for smooth, soothing pianos and turns her minors into majors until each ends up easy on the ear, but bleached of originality and interest. “Don’t resolve it,” Cat pushes back. “Leave it unresolved.”
Their tussle is as much about commercial credit as it is creative control, and at base, Penhall’s come up with a real riddler: Who owns a song — the artist who originated it or the editor who retuned it? It’s a collaboration, but not an equal one: her talent surely outweighs his know-how. Yet neither succeeds without the other: he needs material, she needs commercial appeal. It’s a conundrum that, lived and felt, blisters their relationship like battery acid. Acrimony spills out of the studio into psychiatry sessions and legal duels, and Penhall’s play is symphonic: a piece for six voices that slip between conversations, staged with a supple simplicity by Roger Michell. Bernard and Cat rail at their respective shrinks (Pip Carter and Jemma Redgrave), and only talk to each other through their legal teams. Form furthers the hostility: neither party seems able to sit down with the other and simply talk.
It’s as timely as it is tricksy. There are plenty of echoes with the Kesha case, not least a protracted legal battle that grinds its complainant down to complacency. (Despite a purported kidnapping, Penhall’s plot, ultimately, peters out.) Even without anything sexually untoward, Bernard’s manipulation of Cat, his obliteration of her, feels at one with Times Up: male power calls the shots, takes the credit, gets the gong and, ultimately, squeezes female talent and truth out of the frame. Penhall eloquently ties the patriarchy into capitalism: the diktats of the mass market being inherently conservative, delivering not change but more of the same. It makes clear that industry inevitably quashes art. And yet, for all the systemic issues it suggests, “Mood Music” is a matter of two unpleasant individuals out for each other’s throats.
That’s why it’s a play that exerts an awful pull, like a spider paralyzing then devouring its prey. It’s bitter, poisonous, nasty. Chaplin is mesmerizing as the Machiavellian Bernard. Dressed like a man half his age — beads wound round his wrist, aviators hanging from his shirt — he has the vanity of self-assurance without self-awareness. He half-swaggers, half-slouches and sings his own praises in a nasal twang. It’s a perfectly judged performance, carefully positioned between articulacy and unintelligence, and Chaplin suggests that sudden success might be its own form of trauma: Bernard lacks humility or empathy because he sees the world as his audience. He’s impervious to it, except as it fawns on him.
As Cat, Kerslake plays an altogether different trauma: her determined front falls away to reveal a soft emotional underbelly — the product, perhaps, of an absentee dad. Driven by authenticity in art and in life, she’s no match for Bernard, who breaks her like a hostage, jabbing at scar tissue, undercutting her talent. It’s Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” but with sexual politics and inscrutability. Penhall persuades us to pay the closest of attention, scouring everything anyone says to see which side you should take. Hildegard Bechtler’s design hangs a canopy of mics overhead, and “Mood Music” makes you tune in and listen.