THEATRE / Another bout of underbelly-ache: Paul Taylor on Howard Korder's Search and Destroy at the Theatre Upstairs

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THAT THE American Dream has a 'dark underbelly' is not exactly hot news. Indeed, this area seems to be much the biggest part of its anatomy and the Dream has been floating about underbelly-up for as long as most of us can remember. So how is a dramatic foray into yet another of the Dream's disturbed nights to avoid looking dog-eared and predictable?

With Search and Destroy the American playwright Howard Korder addresses the problem by adroitly sidestepping it. In the knowing atmosphere of this keyed up, drolly satiric play, the starry-eyed-faith-toppling-to-desperate-disillusion genre keeps careering into crazy self-parody. The central characters are too much in earnest to notice this, which is part of the joke. It creates a weird, dissociated mood, potently conveyed in Stephen Daldry's well-conceived production at the Theatre Upstairs.

The play focuses attention on Martin Mirkheim (David Bamber), a dodgy little Florida businessman whose brain has been turned by the bullish uplift of a TV guru called Dr Waxling (Colin Stinton). This charlatan specialises in vacuous pronouncements such as 'Strength needs no excuse', 'There are no limitations' and 'The past is pointless'. The little matter of the dollars 47,000 Martin owes in corporate tax is now, of course, far too backward-looking a subject to interest our born-again visionary, as Martin, emoting like some would-be revivalist, tries to impress upon an incredulous accountant (Cyril Nri). Martin wants to raise the money to buy the movie rights to Daniel Strong, Waxling's novel about limitless possibility, and the fund-raising effort sends him on a downward spiral into drug dealing and murder.

High-definition comic acting from a first-rate cast and imaginative staging by Daldry vividly evoke the fraught, fatuous self-delusion and the riskiness of this seedy odyssey. Giving the lie to all the bullshit about people 'connecting', characters sit perched on adjustable swivel chairs at a gaping distance from each other. When at one point Martin is handcuffed to such a chair, it stays with him like some surreal bodily handicap, only to be dismantled gradually in later scenes. On several occasions, a false ceiling descends to create a vast board table or the intimidatingly low-slung motel room where the tense drug swindle occurs. Monitors flash up Barbara Bush and a blood-thirsty monster with a many-fanged penis, though not, alas, in the same frame.

Andrew Woodall is outstanding as Kim, Martin's eventual partner, letting you see behind the manly cool a figure who is still afraid of being tested. A potential liability, therefore, since he may choose a reckless moment to prove himself - as in fact happens when, to keep the drugs hidden, he shoots the cop who has stopped them for speeding.

'Everything up to this exact moment is the past,' Kim cries with deranged exaltation, as though he had just hit on a profound philosophical truth rather than a pitiably banal truism. He's the only figure who maintains his beliefs unto death. As is underlined by Colin Stinton's hilarious cameo as Waxling, the great guru is no big-souled visionary. 'Get me something - chocolate,' he bawls imperiously, craving instant consolation for a drop in sales.

It's a play with very good things, perhaps, rather than a very good play, but David Bamber's Martin holds it together splendidly, through the rattled fervour, the abject disintegration and the sour-joke bounce-back at the end, when he proves with a match that you can render the past pointless.

'Search and Destroy' continues to 29 May at the Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court, London SW1 (071-730 1745).