Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Comedy Theatre, London

High-powered cast does mediocre comedy no favours ­ but perhaps you have to see it twice
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When I first saw David Mamet's play at the Sheffield Crucible in 2001, I wrote that I couldn't imagine it done better. I didn't, however, imagine it could be done so much worse, especially with such a high-powered cast. But this cast and its director do the 1974 comedy of exciting sex fantasies and mundane sex realities no favours.

Fans of TV stars Matthew Perry (Danny) and Hank Azaria (Bernard) may be reassured by Lindsay Posner's treatment of the short, sharp scenes: The proscenium is covered by a screen that splits and slides open to reveal some combination of the men and/ or Minnie Driver and Kelly Reilly in an office or bar or bedroom formed by more sliding panels. When, between scenes, it snaps shut, we see a colour photograph of the Chicago skyline and hear Barry White or another contemporary crooner. This cumbersome device does such an effective job of transforming the play into a sitcom that I half expected (though, I know, wrong city) to hear, during one scene change, "You can turn the world on with your smile." By slowing down the play's rhythm, it also makes the scenes – some only a few exchanges long – carry more weight than they can bear.

And if a slick production and a top-notch cast made Sexual Perversity seem clever, if slight, this mediocre one holds all its flaws to the light. It's a strange thing to say of a regular on The Simpsons, but Azaria shows no talent for comedy. His Bernard, whose sex life is straight from the readers' page of a top-shelf magazine but who strikes out when he tries to pick up a real live girl, has a peculiar, nasal voice, a choppy delivery and terrible timing. He and Perry seem to hold themselves at a distance from their characters. Driver, as an embittered kindergarten teacher, is drab. The performance that best suits the play is Reilly's deft portrayal of the bubblehead who tells Danny, briefly her lover: "I'm not really a lesbian, but I have had some lesbianic experiences."

The play's key line would seem to be Bernard's counsel, when Danny kicks a lift door in frustration: "Don't go looking for affection from inanimate objects." Confusing the excitement of anger with that of arousal, regarding women as alien and contemptible, Bernard and Danny end up with their true mates – each other. Is Mamet mordant- ironic about this? Or does he simply regard all his characters with disdain for their linguistic errors, their solipsism and their paper-shuffling, boring jobs? Is he, like his comic-angry counterpart, Harold Pinter, another author who has just been clever enough to turn his emotional constriction into a style that suits the fashion for amorality?

Maybe it's not the plodding production that exposes the hollowness of this sad comedy. Maybe – unless you're smarter than I am – you just have to see it twice.