In Arabia, We'd All Be Kings, Hampstead Theatre , London ***<br></br>The Game Hunter, Orange Tree, Richmond ;***

Narcotics and frolics

Paul Taylor
Thursday 01 May 2003 00:00
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"Where do you see yourself in five years?" asks the interviewer of the job applicant. It's a hilariously bombastic query, and not just because the job up for grabs is just handing out flyers for dodgy credit cards in Times Square. It's also rum because the inhabitants of Hell's Kitchen, who people this play, have immense trouble seeing anything whatsoever beyond the next fix, or the next slug of whisky, or the next dangerous trick.

Stephen Adly Guirgis's In Arabia, We'd All Be Kings is set in the late 1990s when Mayor Guiliani, yet to become the hero of the hour post-September 11, had a more controversial reputation as the scourge of sleaze and vice in the Times Square section of New York – his reforms satirically referred to as the "Disneyfication" of the area. You might call Guirgis's bleak, blackly funny play a kind of barbed elegy for a way of life that was on its way out, were it not for the stark, unsentimental clarity with which he presents the predicament of these denizens of the lower depths.

What is impressive, though, about the punchy, street-smart writing – and about the mostly excellent performances in Robert Delamere's well-paced production – is the refusal to reduce the characters to sociological specimens. There's a humaneness of approach here that is very different from the beady-eyed behaviourist schadenfreude of Neil LaBute in his recent foray into the world of trailer-trash.

There's also an evenhandedness. It's appalling that young smack-head Skank (brilliantly played by Tom Hardy) is so drugged out of his skull that he can't even register the news that his girlfriend (superb Ashley Davies) has been hacked to death by a religious maniac client she pulled to feed their habit. But we have already warmed to gentle, aimless Skank as the victim of the aggressively camp and cool black dude, Greer (Colin McFarlane) who is all set to buy up and gentrify the local bar. He toys with the boy's desperate need for money and cannot resist humiliating him even further when the deal is struck of 15 minutes in the bathroom for $20: "Doan' worry, baby. What I wanna do ain't gonna take but five."

In Arabia is a powerful variant of the hitting-bedrock-in-the-boozer type of play. Over at the Orange Tree, Richmond now there is a lovely variant on the normal way of presenting farce in Sam Walters's sparkling and exuberant production of The Game Hunter. This is a spry version by Richard Cottrell of an early Feydeau piece, Monsieur Chasse. It's a play (and a genre) that depends on a lot of frantic mayhem with rushed-through and banged doors. How can you perform it in an in-the-round space with never a door in sight? The way Walters and cast square the circle (so to speak) on that, with live sound effects and expert miming, adds a further dimension of charm to a delightful evening.

The play takes off from the discovery by Leontine (a splendidly fraught Amanda Royle) that her husband's alleged hunting trips are a blind for extra-marital nookie. She resolves to repay him in kind, never suspecting that the love-nest of her long-term admirer will be in the very building where her spouse is getting up to no good.

If you think that the only thing that can happen to trousers in a farce is to drop to the wearer's ankles, there is an artful and very amusingly sustained gag here involving two similar pairs of trousers (belonging to an uncle and his feckless nephew) and an incriminating love-note. Highly adroit plotting that this skilfully giddy production does proud.

'In Arabia' to 17 May (020-7722 9301); 'The Game Hunter' to 24 May (020-8940 3633), then at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, 29 May-12 July (01723 370541)

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