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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Donmar


  Geraldine Somerville and Jason O'Mara/ Ph: Hugo Glendinning

Apart from the title (what on earth does it mean?), the most pressing question concerning this Donmar revival of Lanford Wilson’s 1970 play is surely, why bother?  Suburban anguish may be the great postwar American subject, but in Simon Curtis’ impeccably lackluster production, Serenading Louie proves less than the sum of its many superior theatrical influences.
Boredom is the default condition here: Alex (Jason Butler Harner) is married to Gaby (Charlotte Emmerson) who he no longer fancies and has nothing to say to, while Carl (Jason O’Mara) adores his wife Mary (Geraldine Somerville) but is so consumed by ennui he can’t find the energy to care that she is having an affair. With boredom comes a vague crisis of idealism. Alex is about to enter politics but can’t muster enough conviction to really get excited, while Mary can’t find a connection with the younger, more politically minded generation springing up in their wake. Meanwhile poor Gaby is so nervous and unhappy she’s incapable of finishing a sentence. Listlessly the two couples variously air their dissatisfaction and dissipation; in the second act too much alcohol adds danger to the despair, and suddenly everything goes up in smoke.
Wilson is terrific at wounding dialogue - with Somerville’s supremely waspish, ice-cool Mary undeniably getting the lion’s share, a mark, perhaps, of the fact that her character has at least managed to turn her disillusionment into a verbal form of protective armour. But this is a wordy play that, in the first half at least, has very little to say. The quartet’s dawning realisation that they’ve each sleepwalked into their thirties and that the prosperity of the American dream isn’t quite what it’s cracked up to be should be the play’s emotional wallpaper, not the main event, yet Wilson determinedly deploys their state of mind as the core narrative device, and the play is resolutely stymied as a result.
There are some intriguingly subtle elements. Alex appears to be nursing a crippling terror of sex, and instead channels his desires into an impossible, chaste fixation with a 17-year-old student. Gaby – beautifully portrayed by Emmerson as a jangle of fractured nerve endings – may or may not have an unnamed illness. Carl, for all his boyish, indolent charm, is clearly a loaded gun waiting to go off; he drinks too much, is prone to bursts of incandescent rage, and, it appears, served in Vietnam.
Peter McKintosh’s set, with its oatmeal textured furnishings and cool retro furniture, doubles up as the interior for both marital homes, and in doing so provides a neat symbol of the bland, emotional homogeneity of domestic suburbia. Yet despite this visual period specificity, both play and production feel oddly unanchored, drifting in a deliberately featureless time and place that only compounds our own dull sense of disconnect. Moreover, every so often someone breaks character and addresses the audience, an infuriatingly meaningless technique that only serves to beg the question: Just what is our relationship to these people? And ultimately, do we really care? Curtis’ production is faultlessly acted, but struggles to gain emotional purchase, while the melodramatic ending is a cheap shot that aims for tragic status without earning it one jot.  


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