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