Period of Adjustment has the reputation of being Tennessee Williams's one detour into middle-class situation comedy - a respite from his steamy, exotic norm. "Not a single person was raped, castrated, lynched, committed or even eaten," remarked his brother with droll amazement, after watching the Broadway premiere in 1960.
Perhaps for that very reason, the play has fallen from the repertoire. It hasn't been seen in London since its original run there in 1962.
Howard Davies's affectionate, beautifully judged revival at the Almeida reveals that, far from being a self-censoring peculiarity, the play is strongly characteristic of Williams, wittily transposing into a different key some of the dramatist's abiding preoccupations - the emotional cost of the American virility cult; loneliness within marriage; dependence upon the comfort of strangers.
There's a tongue-in-cheek absurdity about the over-patterned set-up that's nicely communicated in this new production. It's a snowy Christmas Eve and the newlyweds George and Isabel turn up, with little notice, at the Memphis home of George's old wartime buddy Ralph. Having dumped the suitcases and the spouse, George inexplicably drives off. It turns out that Ralph, who has just quit his job, was himself abandoned by his wife that morning. But at least his marriage has lasted six years. After the humiliation of an unconsummated honeymoon night, the other union looks set to self-destruct after a day.
It's not just George, though, who has the shakes. Built over a cavern, Ralph's subsiding home is subject to regular tremors that drive cracks up the walls and release showers of plaster. An over-explicit symbol of the dodgy foundations of suburban utopia in the Eisenhower era? It would be if the play didn't have a twinkle in its eye.
There's a lovely moment when Ralph picks up the toy rocket-launcher he'd planned to give his son for Christmas and says to George: "Oh, I wish I could be the first man in a moon rocket! No, not the moon, but Mars, Venus! Hell, I'd like to be transported and transplanted to colonise and fertilise, to be the Adam on a - star in a different galaxy, yeah, that far away even!" You can deduce so many things about the stifling conformity of Fifties America and the punishing pressure on men from that sad, faintly silly flight of yearning.
The play demonstrates that men as much as women are the victims of the period's crude ideal of masculinity. Benedict Cumberbatch's splendid George shows the bottled, juddering violence and macho bombast generated by the dread of not living up to a stun-'em-with-sex-and-screw-tenderness stereotype. So it's no surprise that the excellent Lisa Dillon as his wife is a quivering, poignant-ridiculous mix of ladylike inhibition and sensuality that longs to blossom. Unconsciously alluring, she snuggles up to Jared Harris's wry, more emotionally literate Ralph and asks: "What do you do with a bride left on your doorstep, Mr Bates?"
Period of Adjustment is not Brokeback Mountain. The two men aren't secretly gay. But their potty dreams of buying a ranch - on which they'll breed cattle for use in TV westerns - suggest that they feel a more natural bond with one another than with their wives.
Davies (with Tom McKitterick) has edited the text and entirely excised a scene where Ralph's narrow-minded, materialist in-laws arrive to remove their daughter's possessions and where the father revels in reminding him that a war-hero can't feel as superior during the Cold War. The marginalised, emasculated position of the two main men is therefore, in social terms, slightly less clear.
Deliciously performed by Sandy McDade, Ralph's wife returns, takes one look at the fur he's bought her for Christmas and decides to stay; cue, a mischievous finale in which the couples prepare for bed and the husbands brace themselves to perform their conjugal duties. A happy rediscovery.
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