Action, Young Vic Theatre, London

Going nowhere fast
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The Independent Culture

The bluntness of Sam Shepard's language in this hour-long play is at odds with what happens – or, rather, doesn't happen – in it. Shepard's irony, American-style, begins with the title: the four young people snowbound in a country house talk wildly or longingly of escape, but their only actions are outbursts of frustration, turned against themselves. At the end of the play, one character, who has said he never wants to leave his leather wing chair, tips it over and remains underneath, the better to defend his inertia.

Where the characters have come from and why they are together is as mysterious as where they are. The play begins with the two men and two women sitting at a small table and drinking from a coffee urn. Phin Manasseh's white-walled set, as clean and chilly as the inside of a fridge, has the air of a municipal Nativity scene, with its peaked roof over a large evergreen hung with only a naked light bulb. After several minutes of silence, Jeep, a tall, bulky fellow with staring eyes, intones, "I'm looking forward to my life."

Has he been released from prison, or a mental institution? Later cryptic references to having been "in trouble" indicate the former, but one doesn't rule out the latter, given his trance-like repeated scooping of water from a bucket and pouring it back in. Jeep also rises suddenly, lifts his chair over his head and smashes it to pieces, then, a few minutes later, does the same thing with its replacement.

The others ignore his outbursts, and then Jeep, like the others, turns the pages of a large book, complaining, as they all do, that he "can't find the place". At first, one thinks the book is a road atlas, but it turns out that the place everyone wants to get back to is the point at which Shooter, the other man, stopped when reading from a science-fiction comic. The two women don't have much to do except serve a turkey that one has cooked and hang winter underwear on a clothes line strung across the room. During Jeep's plaintive monologue about Lincoln and Walt Whitman, which reveals his yearning for a good father, they say they don't know "much" about the poet, in that polite, detached tone that says they don't want to.

Shooter, who goes to ground under his chair, warns that anything can happen – "Just because we're surrounded by four walls and a roof, it's still dangerous" – but nothing of consequence does. John Sharian is a creepy, ominous Jeep and Nicolas Tennant a wonderfully unpredictable, edgy Shooter (he looks degenerate in a way that hasn't been invented yet). But Arlette George's production fails to create the dark moodiness or the crackling tension that would keep us from being weighed down by Shepard's heavy symbolism and extract more poignancy from his snapshot of fragmented lives. This drama of American rootlessness and rage needs more electricity than can be provided by a single bulb.

To 11 August, 020-7928 6363

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