Theatre: Over long, over here

Mixed motives lead to mixed results in a season of new American plays at London's Donmar.
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The Independent Culture
You know the scenario: the play isn't within gobbing distance of the interval and already you're feeling that a kinder management would have issued punters with individual chunks of brick wall to beat their heads against. This was the experience I had while watching Kia Corthron's Splash Hatch on the E Going Down, the first in a three-play season at the Donmar called American Imports. My irritation, however, was inspired less by this thuddingly undramatic piece of ecological editorialising than by the piety of the misguided motives for mounting it, and the rest of the series.

Given that the Donmar's commitment to new writing is not a round-the- clock one, the only justifications for mounting a group of plays by American dramatists who are unknown quantities over here are quality, plus cultural curiosity and sense of adventure. But the theatre's literary manager treats us to a programme essay in which there's a lot of breast-beating about the unfairness of the current British dominance both on and off- Broadway.

It is implied that the reasons for this have as much to do with invidious conditions (our young dramatists hail from a culture of public subsidy; theirs don't) as with the inherent excellence of the exports. So this season of New York-based plays, two of which, ironically, have yet to be produced in the Big Apple, is a way of redressing the balance.

A strange policy. It's true that Tony Kushner's Angels in America was staged at our National Theatre before Broadway would consider it. The difference, though, is not just that that play happens to be a masterpiece. The Donmar's righteously philanthropic umbrella is in fact unfair to the plays, making them sound as if they are simultaneously representative of the best on offer, and charity cases. I fear that it is only as a result of such muddled thinking that Splash Hatch could ever have been produced in Britain, let alone in the kind of committed production Roxana Silbert achieves here.

The central character, a pregnant 15-year-old Harlem girl, relentlessly lectures her family, friends and husband (a demolition worker who dies of lead poisoning) on environmental issues and racial inequities. What a waste to be airing these vital topics through a protagonist whom any audience would quickly want to kill.

Given a slickly chic, splendidly acted and spatially most imaginative staging by James Kerr, Katherine Burger's tart and sometimes touching comedy Morphic Resonance adroitly slips through a number of stylistic modes in charting the love lives of a quartet of thirty-something New Yorkers. Compared to Sex and the City, this is Henry James, and like that master, Ms Burger has a subtle acuteness about what happens to love when one of the partners involved is dying. For much of the time, though, Morphic Resonance comes across as the kind of play that wants to be a critique of the defensive knowingness of smart urban types, but cannot itself quite shake off the temptation to be over-knowing too.

To Saturday. The season continues with `3 Days of Rain' from Tues. (0171- 369 1732)

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