LONDON—Local theater professionals aren’t happy to think of their city as a tryout town for New York, but it is. Plays and productions are regularly exported—sometimes because of quality, but not always.
Take Yasmina Reza’s newest effort, Life X 3, which just opened here (the Lyttelton), as well as in Paris, Athens, and Vienna. The slate gray seriocomedy can be expected in Manhattan, too, because Reza continues exploiting her uncommon commercial knack: marketing boulevard comedies that lay a claim, however flimsy, to gravitas. Here, astrophysicist Henry and testy wife Sonia are forced to host his imperious boss and the boss’s insecure spouse when the pair arrive a night early for a dinner party.
Indeed, Henry and Sonia fulfill their roles three times over, since the action—as in Anne Meara’s current Down the Garden Paths—twice jumps back to the beginning. With the sort-of-repeated action, in which angry undercurrents modulate, Reza files a bittersweet brief about the state of modern marriage, but beyond that her intentions are cloudy. Perhaps she intends to point out subtly shifting social dynamics; cowering Henry is towering Henry by the third go-round. What is clear is that Matthew Warchus, directing a nimble Christopher Hampton translation from Reza’s Trois Versions de la Vie, makes thin ice slick. He uses the perfect instruments: actors Mark Rylance, Harriet Walter, Imelda Staunton, and Oliver Cotton.
Stephen Jeffreys’s I Just Stopped By to See the Man (Royal Court) doesn’t appear to have any American suitors, though it’s arguably the season’s best play. It takes place in the Mississippi delta during the summer of 1975, when touring English blues superstar Karl locates his supposedly deceased idol, a black musician called Jesse Davidson. The grizzled man is living with his daughter, Della, in a two-room shack and trying to fit in with his God-fearing neighbors. Karl is determined to get Jesse back onstage; when he does, he sparks problems for Della, a fugitive political activist.
That Jesse is first heard singing the words “He rose from the dead” and that his name evokes Jesus, a lineal son of David, tips the play’s death-redemption-rebirth theme, which Jeffreys doesn’t otherwise force. To the contrary, he shapes his script into a moving exploration of three people getting their off-track lives running. Curiously, local critics twitted Jeffreys for presuming to write about American blacks. (Would they slam an American writing about a Brit guitarist?) But New York-based Tommy Hollis’s haunting performance as Jesse provoked no reservations.
Quality and commercial acumen neatly link in Madame Melville (Vaudeville), which Richard Nelson wrote and directed. He also shrewdly cast Macaulay Culkin, Irène Jacob, and Madeleine Potter, assuring a New York transfer. Nelson, often grandiose in previous works, has no pretensions here, making his tale of a 15-year-old schoolboy’s seduction by his late-thirtysomething teacher more than modestly appealing. As with Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, Nelson’s (autobiographical?) script doesn’t excuse psychologically damaged adults who take advantage of children; he simply presents the unmarried Madame Melville in credible dimensions. Culkin has made the transition to adult actor with astonishing skill. Playing a 30-year-old looking back at his 15-year-old self, he incorporates clever mannerisms into his depiction of an adolescent’s joyful sexual awakening—nervous laughs, little intakes of breath, uncertain posture. Jacob, as a woman at the end of an affair with a married colleague, conveys repressed anguish with Ingrid Bergman-like ease.
Worth Bringing Over but Unlikely Due to Grimness: Max Stafford-Clark’s double bill of Rita, Sue and Bob Too and A State Affair (Soho Theatre). The curtain-raiser is a revival of Andrea Dunbar’s outcry over slum conditions in the Buttershaw Estates outside Bradford. Brought up there, Dunbar (who died at age 29) wrote a gnarly work about local unemployment leading inexorably to familial violence and abuse. Early in 2000, Stafford-Clark and dramatist Robin Soans interviewed current Buttershaw Estates residents so they could shape the transcripts into a documentary about widespread heroin use further decimating the community. Although both one-acts already register as period pieces, their effectiveness is barely vitiated.
Worthy Enough to See These Shores: Stagestruck Jessica Lange seems to have studied Katharine Hepburn’s performance as Mary Tyrone for the West End revival of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Lyric). She uses the hairdo, the accent, even at times the tremor. Nevertheless, she’s better than might be expected—and younger-looking. No decision has been made yet as to whether statesiders will see the Oscar winner endlessly worry a handkerchief as she swaps transparent lies and bitter truths with the male Tyrones (played acceptably by Charles Dance, Paul Rudd, and Paul Nicholls).
Could Happen If He Agrees: Michael Gambon’s ratty-haired, slope-shouldered Davies in the revival of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker (Comedy) isn’t so much a portrayal as a force of nature. Even though the play isn’t as menacing as it initially was (Rupert Graves makes a valiant go at the unpredictable Mick), it remains something to see.
It’ll Never Fly: Cameron Mackintosh’s musical adaptation of John Updike’s Witches of Eastwick, with book and lyrics by John Dempsey and music by Dana P. Rowe (Drury Lane), is so deficient in every department—except perhaps Maria Friedman’s lovelorn witch—it leaves one not at a loss for words but determined that words not be wasted on it.