THEATRE The Woods Finborough Theatre, London

Men's need to win the esteem of men - and the relegation of women to being props deployed in the pursuit of this approval - has been a fruitful dramatic theme for David Mamet. Once, discussing his play All Men are Whores, he even argued that a brothel is essentially a place for homosexual experience "because it has to do with proclaiming yourself in terms of other men. And a whorehouse is how other men see America." Problems tend to arise, though, when he tries to imagine a situation where a man is not in the company of men but alone with a member of the opposite sex.

The Woods, a 1977 play that now has its belated British premiere in Robert Shaw's impressively acted production, was expressly written to examine the question "why don't men and women get along?" It focuses on a pair of lovers, Nick (excellent Peter Polycarpou) and Emma Bird's Ruth, who has escaped from the city for a romantic weekend up in Nick's family cabin. In three scenes, which take place from sunset through to the next morning, their idyll gradually turns ugly, then violent and ends in an exhausted stalemate. But, as with Oleanna, a play that it at times oddly anticipates, you get the sense that there's an ugliness not just in the purportedly representative relationship but in Mamet's whole handling and weighting of it.

The play has its strengths. Mamet captures the rhythm and the dynamics of fight-picking with a terse, almost poetic accuracy and there's a stomach- tensing power in the sequence where Ruth finally gives in to Nick's rough sexual coercion on the porch but is too dry for him to enter, thus detonating a small bomb of mutual recrimination as she taunts him for the aggressive way he deals with his wounded male vanity. But most of the would-be archetypal stuff about man versus woman, authentic country versus inauthentic city (not to mention the trope of babes in the wood telling fairy stories to each other to fend off fear and postpone an ending) comes across as inflated cliche, corniness on stilts. She, of course, is the one who wants long- term commitment; he, the one out of touch with his feelings to the point of eventual near breakdown.

Even if you can put up with the galumphing givenness of all this, you may still wonder why the Ruth character (like the female student in Oleanna) has to metamorphose into a nagging scold of preternatural humourlessness, policing Nick's comments on the look-out for the least sign of not being taken seriously. And if Ruth's speeches about, say, her grandmother "She was like the Earth./ She knew so many things./ I think about her all the time./ I wish I had not lost her bracelet." are intended to be satire- free tributes to her intuition and poetic spirit, then the joke is on Mamet.

The most telling comparison would be with Strindberg. In dramatising the incompatibilities between the sexes, this upfront misogynist never patronises the fearsome women he creates: hence their popularity with actresses. By contrast, it's impossible to imagine any of Mamet's female characters ever taking on an independent life and steering their creator to a position he had not forseenn

To 3 Nov (Booking: 0171-373 3842)

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