Serenading Louie, Donmar Warehouse, London

3.00

Reminiscence, said a wise woman, is masochistic: if you remember happiness, you're sad that it's gone, and, if you remember unhappiness, you feel bad all over again. The two couples in Serenading Louie haven't learned this yet. In their early thirties, feeling that the best of life is over, they retreat into memory, pawing through scraps of broken mirror from their bright college years. When you do this too long, and you do it in company, it's inevitable that a slip will bring blood.

Lanford Wilson's 1970 play (this is its UK premiere) takes its title from "The Whiffenpoof Song", the Yale tune whose singers describe themselves as "poor little lambs who have lost our way". Two of these lambs have found a cosy berth – Alex, a successful lawyer, is a rising star in politics, and Carl, a property developer, is making money hand over fist. Their respective wives, however, are obviously lost. Gaby, comfortable only in company, speaks to her husband in the halting, broken sentences of a woman terrified of rage or revelation: "I didn't realise... Have you read this? It isn't... well, I don't know what it isn't." Mary has the brisk, smooth confidence of old money, but she spends her life in motion and her afternoons with a lover who is Carl's employee. These Chicago couples lead lives so alike that one set is used for their two homes. It's the deadly Danish modern of an earlier decade, brown and beige with some torpid teal and muted orange.

As the house, with its absence of colour, warmth, charm, and culture shows, the characters are prisoners of the joyless Fifties. They look with fear, lust, and envy on those only 10 years younger, who seem a different generation, if not a new species. But the world, like Carl and Mary's daughter, remains offstage and the play feels as deracinated as the characters, the first act especially vague. Wilson's dialogue is often delicate, but more often thin. His looking-backward play lacks the obsessive quest for the moment life took a wrong turn (as in J B Priestley) or the ruthless psychological cross-examination of earlier and later playwrights. Carl, in one extraordinary moment, makes a suggestion that takes us into Neil LaBute territory, but it is immediately disavowed, and the ending, though horrible, is less shocking than if Carl had carried out his original plan. Though Wilson is often compared to Tennessee Williams, Serenading Louie prompts the thought that he is more closely allied to another and lesser such playwright, William Inge, whose Come Back, Little Sheba and Picnic also examined restless, disappointed characters, though ones lower down the social scale.

Simon Curtis's sensitive production has excellent performances from Jason Butler Harner (Alex), the only American, as well as from Jason O'Mara (Carl) and Geraldine Somerville (Mary), the last of whom catches perfectly the lofty but dangerous obliviousness of the rich. Charlotte Emmerson's Gaby, though fine once she starts expressing the rage it has taken nearly all her energy to deny, seems, until then, to be dim-witted or stoned rather than repressed. The accents of the English actors are a match for Harner's (one small point: the last syllable of "Congressman" should be swallowed, like the "ham" in "Buckingham"). But, just as the characters feel the lack of what they cannot name ("Sometimes, I get really mad at her for having robbed me of something," says Alex of his wife), the actors seem to miss an essential American vigour and openness. There is an overly careful quality to both acting and play which, finally, leaves the audience as detached from these privileged but empty characters as they are from themselves.

To 27 March (0844 871 7624); then touring

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen