Although the West Ends heart, Piccadilly Circus, was certainly pulsing last Friday night, it was hardly host to the usual suffocating crush of humanity. Two months after 9/11, London is still experiencing a marked drop-off in tourism, and publicists are making it clear that Americans, more than ever, are welcome in theaters here, from the fringes of Hampstead to the plush venues of Shaftesbury Avenue.
Still, there isnt much evidence of adventurous new work. Old, solid paths are being retrod in a plethora of revivals and even by Britains finest young writers, such as Joe Penhall and Mark Ravenhill, each with new plays performing in the West End.
THE ROYAL FAMILY (West End). Ethel Barrymore threatened a lawsuit after George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferbers dubiously affectionate rim-shot comedy parodied her theatrical clan in The Royal Family, a portrait of narcissist men and cloying divas. Some charismatic performances notwithstanding, the recorded ragtime music commissioned by director Peter Hall for the act transitions cant really make up for the lack of bounce between the actors themselves. There is, however, the diversion of Anthony Wards spectacular set, with its arching staircase and cushy ottoman. And theres national treasure Judi Dench, wasted here but lavishly costumed by Christine Rowland and Louise Dadd in an array of opulent gowns and necklaces so bulky and ornate, Dench requires a strong back just to stay upright. Meanwhile, the audience requires strong coffee to do the same. Haymarket Theatre Royal; Haymarket, SW1; Piccadilly Circus Underground; through February 2. Call 011-44-207 344-4444.
MOTHER CLAPS MOLLY HOUSE (South Bank). Playwright Mark Ravenhill spins all the ideas from his Shopping and Fucking (seen last year at Hollywoods Celebration Theater) into a brilliant and bawdy fantasia with music by Matthew Scott set in an 18th-century London apparel shop that morphs back and forth into a contemporary gay sex club: Imagine a blend of Timberlake Wertenbaker, Caryl Churchill and Tony Kushner. The shop owner (Iain Mitchell) is torn between his carnal appetites and his responsibility to the business; meanwhile, his apprentice (Paul Ready) keeps wandering off down Sodomite Lane. Then, when the proprietor manages to actually die of lust, his neglected, dour and dutiful wife (Deborah Findlay) assumes the name Mother Clap and takes over the trade (so to speak). Recognizing the profits to be had from pleasure, Clap closes the Puritan gap between duty and desire by opening a Molly House in which men (including that randy apprentice) pay to dress in womens clothing and play at family life. By Act 2, Molly House has transformed into a modern sex club, the activities at which are videotaped by a porno director. Claps epiphany, Business doesnt judge, carries a message that keeps Ravenhills play playing in the brain that Free Trade is fundamentally amoral, as liberating for the jaded and callous as it is tortuous for those in need of real human connection. The National Theatres newly appointed artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, has staged a riveting production, even though Act 2 slips on the soapy opera. Excellent performances throughout. National Theatre, Lyttleton; South Bank, SE1; Waterloo Underground; in rep indefinitely. Call 011-44-207-452-3000.
BLUE/ORANGE (West End). From Shaw to David Edgar to David Hare, British playwrights excel at capturing with precision and poetry the toxic malevolence of modern bureaucracies. Here, Joe Penhall carries the torch in his new play, set in a mental institution, about a black patient, Christopher (Shaun Parkes), under the care of two Caucasian men: a rumpled senior consultant (David Threlfall) and a preppie student intern (Neil Stuke). Christopher, whos convinced that his father is Idi Amin and that the oranges on the plate before him are actually blue, may or may not have had a run-in with some skinheads, which may or may not have driven him over the edge. As the interns convictions turn to arrogance and insubordination, Penhalls detective story as neatly balanced as a gyroscope on a string reveals not only the insanity and the racism of all three characters, but how their torrents of self-protective verbiage are only marginally related to what they actually believe. Though the play may overstate this point, the taut dialogue and potent arguments are presented with honed and calibrated sarcasm, slashing with the ferocity of razor blades. Roger Michells staging of three performers in top form makes for a crackling play of ideas. Duchess Theatre, Catherine Street, WC2; Covent Garden Underground; through January 5. Call 011-44-207-494-5076.
THE GRADUATE (West End) is adapter-director Terry Johnsons stage version of Calder Willingham and Buck Henrys screenplay, based on Charles Webbs novel, for the 1967 film about a pathologically bewildered young man whose affairs with the wife of his dads best friend and her daughter lead to a showdown at the altar when the young woman tries to marry another, comparatively stable fellow. The message: Settling down aint much fun, and conformity is grotesque rallying cries for a generation now balding, graying, and juggling their stocks and 401(k) plans for the best returns. Johnsons Simon-and-Garfunkel-laced adaptation is a kind of Mad magazine redux of the film script, which wasnt all that trenchant to begin with, but did have its soulful moments, here wanting: The attraction between Linda Grays jaw-clenched Mrs. Robinson and David Nicolles kvetching stalker is quite beyond belief. Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, W1; Piccadilly Circus Underground; through February 2. Call 011-44-207-494-5065, or visit www.thegraduate.uk.com.
BOY GETS GIRL (OffWest End). The Graduates romantic endorsement of stalking is referred to specifically, and critically in Rebecca (Spinning Into Butter) Gilmans new American play, here on the bounce from New York and Chicago. Uptight, career-driven Theresa (Katrin Cartlidge) is goaded into a blind date with the affable if cloddish Tony (Demetri Goritsas). Alas, nice though he seems, shes not convinced they have much in common. But Tonys just a guy who cant hear no; he delivers flowers to her office the next day, and begins leaving increasingly perverse and threatening phone messages. Gilmans melodrama recalls William Mastrosimones Extremities, though rather than exploiting, even enjoying, the plight of her victim, as Mastrosimones play did, Gilman uses it as a canvas to paint a fundamental distance, and distrust, between men and women. Ian Rickson directs a British cast who portray Americans flawlessly. Royal Court Theatre Downstairs, Sloane Square, SW1; Sloane Square Underground; through December 15. Call 011-44-207-565-5000, or visit www.royal courttheatre.com.
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (West End). Ned Beattys Big Daddy is to Tennessee Williams classic what Brian Dennehys Willy Loman was to Death of a Salesman in the revival seen at the Ahmanson last year, a masterful, robust if by-the-numbers rendition. Which also describes Anthony Pages production. Brendan Frasers magnetic, muscular Brick floating on one crutch around a massive, symbolic bed on his countless excursions to an upstage bar, is a majestic, balletic performance, a monument to understatement, a quiet, earth-moving rumble as Brick slides into inebriation even as Williams states and restates his jokes and poetic ironies with redundant force. Frances OConnor, meanwhile, transforms Maggie the Cat into a gazelle. The cumulative impact is strikingly elegant and at times thunderous, though the surprises are few. Lyric Shaftesbury, Shaftesbury Avenue, W1; Piccadilly Circus Underground; through January 12. Call 011-207-494-5045.
GERTRUDE AND ALICE: A LIKENESS TO LOVING (OffWest End). Imported from New Yorks Foundry Theater, writer-performers Lola Pashalinski and Linda Chapmans piece about the life and love of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in this ever-so-tender choreographed staging by Ann Bogart is more poem than play, a fiction that slides between first and third person, riding on the tug and pull between sentimentality and the cool whimsy that keeps it at bay. Despite twinges of awkwardness, Pashalinski gets to the heart of what it means to be an abstract writer, neglected if not actually scorned, and meditates effectively upon the capriciousness of fame. Drill Hall, 16 Chenies St., WC1; Goodge Street Underground; through December 1. Call 011-44-207-637-8270.
P.S.: Dont forget to take the eight-hour time differential into account when phoning for reservations.