It is, one fears, a shark-eat-shark environment in The Same Deep Water as Me, the dark new comedy by the Olivier Award-winning playwright Nick Payne (of Constellations fame). Though in denial, Andrew (Daniel Mays) and his boss Barry (Nigel Lindsay) are on the skids. Holed up in a shabby, windowless office in Luton, they're making disappointingly little money as a pair of down-market solicitors.
When a cash-strapped ex-schoolmate, Kevin (Marc Wootton), barrels in, saying that his car has been pranged by a Tesco's van and he's after one of those "no win, no fee" deals, Andrew hopes to pull a fast one. However, Kevin is a scammer and yobbish desperado with a larger scale ploy, 'cos why shouldn't he live like a tax-doging fat cat or Puff Daddy? Determined to make a mint out of the cash-for-crashes racket, he gets Andrew embroiled and starts drafting in oddball cronies to fake accidents collectively. Big Society, innit. No one seems sure when to apply the brakes, ethically speaking, and that includes Kevin's nervous wife, Jen (Niky Wardley). She is called in to give evidence and is, by the by, Andrew's old flame.
Still only in his twenties, Payne is exceptionally talented. Granted, The Same Deep Water as Me isn't as structurally complex as Constellations. At points, it looks a little too like David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross crossed with The Office, or a splicing of subgenres – crooks' hustle-going-on-courtroom drama.
Far from predictable, though, scenes steer you one way then veer off, teasingly leaving you in the lurch with a shaggy dog story, or tossing you red herrings. With a great ear for dialogue plus a sociological grasp of how ethics have been corroded by the UKs wealth gap, Payne has a satiric bent behind which lies romantic hopefulness.
John Crowley's fine production boasts superb performances, especially from Lindsay whose Barry has unfathomed reserves of generosity, even when emotionally battered. As the pasty-faced, etiolated Andrew, Mays impressively bridges the gap between the laughably flailing and the seriously wracked. And, even if the verdict seems improbable, the trial includes splendid turns by Isabella Laughland as the defensive van driver, Monica Dolan as a smug, Sloaney lawyer and Peter Forbes as the crisp, dapper but never caricatured judge.
In The Sound of Music (Regent's Park Open Air ****), revived by Rachel Kavanaugh, Captain von Trapp (Michael Xavier) morally refuses to collaborate with the Nazis. Ditching his schmoozing fiancée, he abandons his Austrian schloss and escapes over the Alps with his children and, of course, his new bride Maria (Charlotte Wakefield). That Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical romance is fortified with such issues – questions about courage, life-choices and creeds – seems the more surprising and admirable when you see it in Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, where the summer season's song 'n' dance might be expected to be mere froth.
That said, the main charm of Kavanaugh's production is just how sweetly natural Wakefield's Maria seems, with her mousy bob and tomboyish stride – never trying to ape Julie Andrews from the movie. Her emotional excitability feels genuinely youthful, and it's rather winning that her songs aren't too showily polished. The most entrancing moment – choreographed by Alistair David – comes when Xavier's hitherto stiff-backed von Trapp really falls for Wakefield, in a folk dance that slowly entwines their bodies.
Almost uncannily mirroring that, the eponymous lothario of Pirandello's rustic drama Liolà (NT Lyttelton, London ***) is coiling another man's wife, Mita, into a clinch. That's choreographed by Scarlett Mackmin, with a traditional village band playing in the shadows. Richard Eyre's NT production is beautifully staged in the Lyttelton, set in walled courtyard with a massive olive tree and sunshine flooding in. The setting is the Mediterranean – with peasant headscarves, long aprons and sturdy boots – while the cast give an Irish lilt to Tanya Ronder's new, largely unobtrusive English translation.
Rory Keenan's Liolà unrepentantly sows his wild oats and even helps Mita (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) fend off a gold-digging rival as she persuades her husband (James Hayes) that her pregnancy is legitimate. Hayes' curmudgeonly old Simone is sterile but demanding an heir.
What's most interesting about this rarely seen work is that the playwright celebrates his Don Juan. While having its roots in commedia dell'arte, Liolà also looks like a long-lost ancestor of the Irish folk musical Once, because Keenan and his lady-friends keep throwing in mini-ballads. Eyre and Orlando Gough's folk score give a nod to Brecht and Berlin cabaret as well. That doesn't stop the songs from feeling obtrusive, though. The acoustics aren't great and, though Liolà looks as if it might rival The House of Bernarda Alba or Dancing at Lughnasa, Pirandello's storyline ends up feeling attenuated.
'The Same Deep Water as Me' (donmar warehouse.com) to 28 Sept; 'The Sound of Music' (openairtheatre.com) to 7 Sept; ' 'Liolà' (nationaltheatre.org) to 6 Nov
Last chance to catch James Baldwin's tragicomedy The Amen Corner, set in 1950s Harlem, at London's NT (to Wed). Great acting and storming gospel choiring, as the return of a preacher-woman's bad-boy husband sparks trouble. And, at the Edinburgh Fringe, David Greig's intense new two-hander The Events mulls on the aftermath of an ideology driven massacre. That's at the Traverse (to 25 Aug), directed by Ramin Gray.