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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Leisure Society
Trafalgar Studios   Spring 2012

This Canadian play is part TV sitcom, part sex farce, with a large dollop of Yasmina Reza and ambitions toward Alan Ayckbourn or Mike Leigh style tragicomedy. Its various parts don't hang together and it doesn't achieve its goals, but there's a lot of fun along the way and considerable respect for its ambitiousness. 

Written in French by Franois Archambault and crisply translated by Bobby Theodore, the comedy opens on Peter (Ed Stoppard) and Mary (Melanie Gray), thirty-somethings who have it all money, good jobs, lovely home, a moribund sex life and a baby who won't stop crying. 

They've invited their friend Mark (John Schwab) to call so they can tell him they don't want him as a friend anymore, and the newly-divorced Mark brings along his much younger occasional-sex-partner-but-not-girlfriend Paula (Agyness Deyn). 

Being kookie in the Jennifer Aniston movie mode, Peter and Mary don't manage the break-up very well, and somehow wind up serving the other couple dinner and drinks. A night of heavy drinking ends up with three of the four in bed, to the mild consternation of the fourth, and days afterward, as life goes on, Peter and Mary must soberly face the fact that life is going to go on. 

Though Alan Ayckbourn probably wouldn't write this play, you can sense what he would do with it surprise us by showing us real pain or emotional nakedness in the midst of our laughter. 

But Archambault is too anchored in the safe sitcom world to allow that, and even the heavy-drinking pre-sex scenes that reach for Yasmina Reza-style stripping away of the veneer of civility are too safe these characters, as conceived, aren't capable of real pain, and so there's never any real danger underlying the comedy.

Still, if you don't measure it by the standards of its ambition, but by its accomplishment, The Leisure Society is frequently very funny. 

Peter and Mary, the not-too-bright, not in control of their fates, vaguely unhappy but essentially passive pretty people, may be sitcom staples, but the very familiarity of their half-hearted squabbling and their inability to cope with any minor crisis makes it enjoyable. 

The sight of essentially square people trying to be sexually adventurous has been funny at least since the movie Bob And Carol And Ted And Alice in 1969, and running gags about quitting smoking and the crying baby still work, whatever their age. 

And while director Harry Burton doesn't conquer the script's inclination to change tone and mode every few minutes with gear-grinding abruptness, he does make the most of the comic sequences, helped significantly by the performances of Stoppard, raising wimpishness to an existential state, and Gray, the most successful at hinting at emotional depth by defining her character through nervous tension. 

The other two, the horny divorced guy and the sexually indiscriminate free spirit, are clichs and literary constructs more than real people, but Schwab and Deyn keep them dancing fast enough for us not to notice. 

Try to ignore the fact that The Leisure Society wants to be more than a sitcom, and you can enjoy it on that level.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   The Leisure Society - Trafalgar Studios 2012

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