Critics! How can you trust folks who are Dazzled! Stunned! Devastated! Bewitched! Ravished! Haunted! Mesmerized! Gutted! Wrenched! Heartbroken! Gobsmacked! and otherwise transmuted on a weekly, if not daily, basis? And yet here I am to tell you that all those exclamatory ejaculations apply in the case of Dennis Kelly’s seductive ensnarement of a play, Girls & Boys, along with its sole cast member, Carey Mulligan. My gob was smacked, most memorably.
At the open, Mulligan stands at center stage, behind her a sheer blank wall, white as a nurse’s uniform, bathed in ice-blue light. Her hair is swept back, severe, but her body language is slouchily engaging, a hip cocked here, hand floating out towards us there. She is dressed in a caramel silk blouse neatly tucked into burgundy trousers that will not change throughout the show’s 13 scenes in a single, nearly two-hour act.
We could be at the Comedy Club. Her character, a young British woman standing on line for an Easyjet flight out of Naples, watches with irritation as a seemingly clueless man allows a gap to open in front of him, signaling an opportunity for a pair of models to chat him up, angling to cut in. Her irritation turns to gobsmacky bewitchment as this seeming gull deftly turns the tables on his would-be exploiters. She is near the end of a lengthy odyssey that’s taken her from young love through a period of slaggery (narrated for us in excruciating, if hilarious, detail) up to this revelatory scene among unruly Italians, wherein a fellow Brit gets the better of a pair of privileged twits. Reader, she marries him.
And with a blackout followed almost enchantingly by the silent reveal of a stage crowded with the ordinary accoutrements of a family home – kitchen at stage right, family area down left – she is mothering her two young children, Danny and Leanne, who exist only in the contours of her gesticulations as she fondles and loves and cajoles them at play.
And so Girls & Boys proceeds, under the fluid, tasteful direction of Lyndsey Turner, with a brilliant assist from designers Es Devlin (those exquisite scene shifts) and Oliver Fenwick (ditto on the lighting). Scene by scene, we flip from bare stage to full as we learn the narrative of this marriage, from the first flush of love through to, well, unlove as the partners find career success, produce their kids and then, not inevitably but horrifically, to “the hard bit,” as she says, before concluding with a story the likes of which you won’t ever hear at the Comedy Club.
And you will remember this performance, by an actress last seen on Broadway holding her own with Bill Nighy in the revival of David Hare’s brilliant Skylight, and first seen in the disturbing film An Education. Turner, the director, brought a revival of Machinal here and on London also staged a remarkable Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch. The work here, imported from the Royal Court Theatre to Greenwich Village’s Minetta Lane, is elegant, harrowing and flawless. (It’s being sponsored by Audible, which will release the play as an audio download.)
Here’s the hard bit, though. I didn’t believe much of Dennis Kelly’s script. The funny parts, yes, though I’m not sure a female playwright would have her heroine say, “If he doesn’t come soon, he’s going to fuck me right into that puddle of puke,” twice, just for comic effect.
More important, Girls & Boys demands our sympathy for this woman while painting her as a self-mythologizing winner who misreads her husband at every juncture, from the queue at the airport in Naples, to her assumption that he is having an affair, to her astonishing assertion that “he had never existed in the first place.”
The penultimate scene includes a detour into statistical didacticism that concludes with the comment, “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.” If that made any sense to me, I probably wouldn’t believe it anyway.
Absent from these near 120 minutes is almost any interaction between successful wife and disintegrating husband. Not to suggest that it would mitigate what happens, only that this journey into hell is being narrated by a character not much loved by the author. Girls & Boys pulled me violently in different directions, and I left feeling drawn! and quartered!