Theatre: On the Fringe

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THIS WEEK has seen the UK premiere of the first play written by an American and presented at a professional theatre. It has taken us a staggering 211 years to stage Royall Tyler's The Contrast.

The fact that this comedy of manners is so little known to us might be adduced to its lack of artistic merit and/or the vagueness surrounding its status as a dramatic "first": after all, a glance at a reference book tells us that the first play performed in English-speaking America was The Bear and the Cub, in Virginia in 1665, and that many other plays were penned prior to the War of Independence.

What Upstart Crow's eminently watchable production suggests is that, if The Contrast has been overlooked over here, it is not because it is a poor endeavour, but because it is so markedly an endeavour.

Rather than putting his name to it, Tyler, a lawyer and soldier, attributed it to "A citizen of the United States" and the work is a tentative fathoming out of what it might mean to be such a citizen. He also follows a British model while attempting to turn away from it.

The contrast alluded to in the title, it soon emerges, is between two kinds of citizen: one who affects European airs and graces, and another whose relative lack of sophistication is compensated for by a nobility of spirit. The former is the foppish, Chesterfield-quoting Dimple (Matthew Rixon), "a de- praved wretch, whose only virtue is a polished exterior."

He is attempting to break off his engagement to Maria by making advances towards two coquettish friends, Letitia and Charlotte. The latter's brother, a uniform-obsessed colonel, and his dull-witted Yankee servant Jonathan are the butt of many a jibe, but ultimately prove their mettle.

Director Melanie Wynyard keeps the light plot dancing along, and, benefiting from some well-judged comic performances, brings the undated central tussle between self-interest and self-sacrifice to the fore. Her actors frequently address their remarks to the house, sending up the didactic spirit of the piece and softening the pomposity of Tyler's cultural introspection.

There is a vicious contrast in Nick Green's Her Alabaster Skin, just opened at the White Bear in Kennington, between ornate, quietly menacing gangster patter and outrageous thuggery. The first section is not particularly promising, a poor man's Krapp's Last Tape: a nervy, solitary man called Joel Parker (Nick Barra) sits recording advice to his son like a latter- day Chesterfield.

A stack of tapes provides the only furniture other than a table and two chairs. With the arrival of the waiter and, then, the manager of the restaurant upstairs, offering him a free meal to compensate for noise, things turn extremely sour.

Parker soon finds himself stripped naked, bound and gagged, and awaiting unspeakable acts of torture. This is a nasty piece of work, which never quite stops feeling school of Pinter, and structurally it crumples unsatisfyingly in the second half. But insouciant performances (particularly from John O'Byrne's terminally bored serial killer) bring out the remorselessness of Green's dialogue which conjures up clubbable, get-ahead males and the powerlessness of those who lead dreamy, independent lives.

'The Contrast', The Cochrane, WC1 (0171-242 7040) To 17 Oct; 'Her Alabaster Skin', White Bear, London, SE11 (0171-793 9193) To 4 Oct