It's full moon over the Californian desert, shortly after the 1991 Gulf war, and everything is starting to go crazy.
It's full moon over the Californian desert, shortly after the 1991 Gulf war, and everything is starting to go crazy. A horny coyote flirts with a pretty house-cat, promising to make her howl with pleasure "so loud, your ancestors will hear". A 14-year-old boy is prowling, mad with desire for the housewife next door. And Gabriela gets a bit unhinged as she awaits the return of her soldier husband, Benito.
Comically impassive, the Moon (Andrew French), who is a black man in white shorts, sitting atop a fridge, complains that not only did Shakespeare have the nerve to call him inconstant, but he even managed to get his gender wrong.
Sam Shepard and magical realism merge, at times a touch awkwardly, in this piece by the Puerto Rican José Rivera, who wrote the screenplay for The Motorcycle Diaries. Benito arrives home to find that Gabriela, going out of her mind with boredom on these lonely army postings, isn't, for once, welcoming him with open legs. A semi-literate guy who joined up as a youth to escape poverty, Benito fails to understand why Gabriela can't hang on for nine years until he's discharged. She is hurt that he won't see why it may be impossible.
Liz White and Alex Zorbas give sizzlingly good performances. She brings a wonderfully sympathetic openness to Gabriela, as her emotions crash like impotent waves against the obdurate rock of her spouse. He skilfully brings to life the kind of hunk you'd feel slightly ashamed to go on fancying.
Rivera's writing, though, leaves you in two minds. The situation he has fashioned is over-schematic and gender-determined. Benito is racist macho man personified, referring to Arabs as "rag-heads". As a somewhat improbable counterbalance, Gabriela is taking classes on the Koran. She manages to uncover, all too easily, the truth that is fighting to get out of her husband when he dreams. And his secret - the razing of an entire Arab town as an insanely disproportionate reaction to the minor injury of a friend - is so extreme that you can't put yourself in his position.
Still, there's some delicious oddball humour in the dialogue. I loved Gabriela's ditzy account of the story of Mohammed - "an angel grabbed him by the nuts and told him to re-site" - and Benito's less-than-feminist response to his wife's new bookishness: "I'm gonna burn your library card on national TV, and people will cheer!"
Gabriela, we hear, has used a tape measure to verify her claustrophobic suspicion that the cactus trees are inching closer to the house day by day. Set within a star-spangled ring of miniature cacti (the design is by Paul Wills), Roisin McBrinn's assured production creates an enchanted space and draws disparate elements - moonstruck poetry, charged sexiness, mischievous drollery - into a beguiling balance. Despite flaws, the play is worth catching.
To 5 February (020-7503 1646)Reuse content