Theatre / Sound and fury

Hurlyburly Queen's Theatre, London

One thing that has to be said about Hurlyburly: it lives up to its title about as thoroughly as any play I've seen. It sets a murderous pace with the opening tableau, when we see a wired, drunken Eddie screaming blue murder at the back of the stage while a TV blares out a breathless MTV stew of noise, and barely slows down for the next two and half hours.

The action of David Rabe's play takes place in the house in the Hollywood Hills that Eddie shares with his friend Mickey. Here, they and their associates Phil and Artie drink, snort lines of coke, toke up, idealise or mistreat women, and shout at each other a lot. There are occasional bursts of actual violence, mostly from Phil, a borderline psychotic; but mostly, what hits you is the force of language - torrents of justified paranoia and frenzied, bullshit eloquence spew out, mostly from Rupert Graves's brilliant, viciously self-pitying Eddie, "hardly a viable social entity", a loser caught up in a self-destructive struggle to bring "clarity" into his life.

The effect is, a lot of the time, hilarious, frightening and fascinating. There are marvellous non sequiturs (asked what qualifies him to talk about Freud, Phil answers "I've been in prison," as if it's so obvious he can't believe anybody asked the question), berserker assaults on each other's egos, offhandedly virtuoso riffs of misogyny. And the performances are mostly excellent: David Tennant's self-controlled, empty Mickey, Andy Serkis's whingeing, macho Phil, Susannah Doyle's hard-as-nails balloon dancer.

But at times, it all gets too much; the words dissolve into one another, meaning and direction vanish, and you start to wonder when the interval's coming up. Possibly this is intentional, a demonstration of how language masks meaning ("I know what I'm saying," Eddie says. "I don't know what I mean, but I know what I'm saying"). There's a fundamental philosophical coherence underpinning the play.

It's no accident that this is set in Hollywood, the place where the concern with externals is taken to extremes - no accident, either, that Eddie and Mickey are casting directors, paid to judge people purely as bundles of characteristics, or that they are separated from their wives and children. (It's worth noting that Hurlyburly dates from 1984, the same year as Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, which covered much the same ground: clever, directionless young men with jobs in the media, broken marriages at their backs and bad drug habits.)

Rabe's concern seems to be to take men in extremis and to use them to demonstrate the fundamental human failure to take account of other people's feelings. Trying to piece together a row with his wife, Phil says that all he could see was a cloud that looked like her - when he hit it, he didn't expect it to really hurt. Later, Eddie observes: "We're all just background in each other's life."

Whether this is enough to justify the periods of dislocation and tedium, or Eddie's drab attempts at self-justification is a moot point. But at least all this sound and fury signifies something.

Queen's, Shaftesbury Ave, London W1 (0171-494 5040). Mon-Sat 8pm; Wed mat 3pm; Sat mat 4pm

Robert Hanks

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