The Theatreguide.London Review
Donmar Warehouse Spring 2010
In the mid-1970s a whole generation of previously promising-young-playwrights found themselves approaching forty and discovering that they weren't kids any more and that life wasn't as much fun as they had expected it to be.
The result was a wave of plays, in Britain and America, in which 30-somethings sat around being discontented, reminisced about their golden university days, wondered aloud whether they should have married, and generally bemoaned the fact that they had, without planning or realising it, grown up.
One of the leading American playwrights of his generation, Lanford Wilson produced several major plays in the 1970s and 1980s, The Hot l Baltimore, Fifth of July and Burn This among them.
But his 1976 Serenading Louie (and no, I don't know what the title means either) is strictly by the numbers, with only a few minutes of clever and evocative construction, and a gratuitous shock ending, to set it apart.
Workaholic lawyer and would-be politician Alex neglects his wife Gaby, who is growing frantic with insecurity and need. Low-key businessman Carl has trouble keeping up with his high-power wife Mary.
Put these characterst ogether in any combination of two, three or four, and they will whine about their discontent, wax nostalgic over their lost youth, and admit that they sometimes hate the one they love.
We learn quickly that one of the four is having an affair, and later that another is considering one. Everybody kvetches, nobody does much of anything and, except for an ending that comes out of nowhere, nothing moves forward or gets resolved.
What strength the play has comes from the fact that it puts this malaise, which is presumably shared by some in the audience, onstage - that it acknowledges and looks at it.
Had Wilson been the first or only playwright to put this reality forward for our consideration (as, for example, Edward Albee had with a different sort of malaise 14 years earlier), he would have been providing a real service.
But even by 1976, and certainly by 2010, there was no news in what Serenading Louie has to tell us, and the play just lies there, spelling out the already-known.
Wilson's one interesting touch is structural. The play is set in the homes of the two couples, which are represented, Alan Ayckbourn-like, by one set which they inhabit alternately and sometimes overlappingly.
But late in the play the two worlds somehow converge and the men, sitting in their own homes, carry on a conversation as if they, like the actors, were in the same room.
All four characters then begin to communicate across the miles, their shared or parallel pains creating a mystical connection. The device itself, more than anything that is said through it, communicates the playwright's sense that he is describing a broadly shared spiritual crisis.
However explicit Wilson's text may be, director Simon Curtis seems to have been driven by the need to spell it all out even more clearly. Charlotte Emmerson as Gaby spends most of the play barefoot so we'll get the message that she's a lost child, while Geraldine Somerville's Mary is dressed in a starch-stiff outfit that might as well be a suit of armour.
Each of the actors - also including Jason Butler Harner as Alex and Jason O'Mara as Carl - is given no more than a single note to play at any time, so that when they have to change - when, for example, Emmerson's hapless Gaby has to stand up for herself, or O'Mara's Carl has to go in an instant from bemoaning his emotional numbness to breaking down in tears - the change is abrupt, unprepared-for and unconvincing.
All four actors work hard and do what they've been told to. They just haven't been given much, from playwright or director, to work with.
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