Theatre: Two girls, two guys. Sounds familiar

American Imports:

Morphic Resonance;

Splash Hatch on the E Going Down

Donmar, London

Le Cid

Riverside Studios, London

The hip reputation that the Donmar enjoys rests on a surprisingly conservative policy of reviving established modern hits with prestigious new casts. Coming up soon we have a revival of Tom Stoppard's Eighties hit The Real Thing. A bolder venue might revive one of Stoppard's plays that hadn't gone down quite so well the first time - Hapgood, for instance.

When it experiments with "new writing", the Donmar's efforts aren't so foolproof. Their "Four Corners" season, whereby they hoovered up four plays from around Britain, has given way this year to a season titled "American Imports". These aren't world premieres, only British premieres. An American producer quoted in the programme remarks that Britain, a nation a fraction of the size of the US, manages to produce more playwrights.

Katherine Burger's play Morphic Resonance takes its title from a daft idea that it's easier to answer crosswords in the evening than it is in the morning because by the evening the right answers - or morphic resonances - have accumulated in the ether. The characters in Morphic Resonance take this soft-centred thinking further: discussing inner selves, Gaia and keeping up with their negation exercises. In a tragi- comedy that moves through a variety of stylistic devices, Burger never makes it clear whether she is chronicling the bourgeois world of single Manhattanites or sending it up.

Morphic Resonance tells a familiar story of two guys and two girls getting it together. They stand on the verge of commitments, and worry about ending up alone or with the wrong person. Burger's dialogue has a brittle, self-conscious streak. But there are sharp scenes, good jokes and by the end of it, the melodramatic twists exert a soap-opera pull. It works well as one wedding and two funerals.

James Kerr's production has deft touches. In one rapid transition the bride throws her wedding bouquet from the staircase, it lands on the ground and becomes the flowers on a grave. It is also attractively cast. Joanna Roth is forcefully crisp as Cleome, the pert, affluent young woman who writes the odd article and whose poise springs as much from fear as self-confidence. Lloyd Owen has less fun as (that tedious character) her boyfriend Wallace, who wants to quit his job, head off to the country and write his novel. But Nigel Lindsay excels as Jim, the average guy, who works in computers. Only when his girlfriend Alice falls ill can he blurt out that he loves her.

As Alice, the former dancer turned administrator, Anastasia Hille has an original journey as she finds herself marrying someone she wouldn't have considered if she knew she was going to live longer. The strangest of all the characters is Cleome's lonely father (Michael Culkin), a banker who lost his wife when she gave birth to his daughter. Thankfully he doesn't share the next generation's vaporous taste for psychobabble, which invariably raises more issues than it resolves. He prefers to circle the Donmar's small stage on rollerskates, with eye-popping eccentricity.

It's anyone's guess why the Donmar decided to import Kia Corthron's Splash Hatch on the E Going Down. The title perhaps. Splash Hatch is set in Harlem, and its central character, the 15-year-old Thyme (Shauna Shim), has an environmental take on the world. This involves Shim lecturing her husband, mother, father and girlfriend on the dangers of airborne lead particles, the size of the ozone layer and the way that six per cent the world's population (the US) consumes 60 per cent of the energy resources. You just wish she'd shut up. All that information should go in the programme. But once you had removed these undigested bits of research from the play, you'd find there's not much left beyond that title.

Thyme started going out with her husband Erry when she was 13 and "held out till she was sure" - which she was at 14. Now she's pregnant, and practising affirmation exercises in the bath ("my cervix is a tulip bulb"). The exercises clearly do work. When she actually does gives birth to her child on stage, it only takes a matter of seconds. It's apt that Splash Hatch is nearly all talk and no action. Anyone who wants to see environmental themes explored in contemporary drama (a neglected area) will remain disappointed.

I'd never seen Corneille's Le Cid (1636) before. But watching the powerful production that has come to the Riverside studios from the Avignon Festival, many aspects looked reassuringly familiar. One scene overlaps with another. When a character slaps his rival on the cheek, the rest of the cast on stage simultaneously burst into applause as the guitarist they have been listening to finishes his performance. You become aware, as precisely as the military footsteps on the bare wooden floor, that this play has been minutely choreographed.

The excellent French cast perform this Cid with the pristine lucidity that is typical of director Declan Donnellan's other work with Cheek By Jowl. Those expecting plenty of swash and buckle from Corneille's heroic, youthful, first major play, which takes place in medieval Seville, will find this production's vigour is more cerebral.

The dilemma is crystal clear, what Hollywood executives would recognise as high concept. Don Rodrigue kills the father of Chimene, the woman he loves, to avenge his own father's honour. For Chimene, as the line on the poster might run, "one half of her life has killed the other". The attractive aspect of plays that take place in medieval settings is their finality. There are no ambulances, paramedics or life-support machines hurrying on to keep Chimene's father lingeringly alive and blur the moral choice. As it is, Chimene's feelings for the half of her life that remains alive wins over the half that has died.

In Donnellan's modern dress production the performances are a good deal more luminous than the surtitles. The willowy William Nadylam is coolly passionate and articulate as Don Rodrigue and Sarah Karbasnikoff is convincingly tempestuous and torn as Chimeme. But the personality that dominates the 110 minutes is Donnellan's own.

'Morphic Resonance' & 'Splash Hatch': Donmar, WC2 (0171 369 1732), in rep to Saturday. 'Le Cid': Riverside, W6 (0181 237 1000), to Friday.

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