Photo by Debra Dipaolo
Aside from the catchy title, what could possibly account for the popularity of Mark Ravenhill’s bleakly amusing parable about the degradation imposed (and self-imposed) upon a circle of clueless drug addicts in London’s East End? Since its 1996 premiere at that city’s Royal Court Theatre, the play has received productions in New York, San Francisco, Australia, Germany, Holland, Greece, Scandinavia, Lithuania, Portugal, Israel and Poland. The biggest surprise is that it’s taken so long to get to L.A.
This work’s appeal can be partly explained by its shock value, by its spectacle of characters in their late teens and early 20s removing their clothes and engaging in acts of rimming and sodomy. Which only demonstrates the lengths to which a playwright must now go in order to sell a Marxist critique. (No small irony there.) For Shopping and Fucking simply recapitulates the cynical theme crooned many times by a famous leftist philosopher and Berlin cabaret MC: “Money makes the world go ’round.” This may not be the world’s most original idea, but neither is it a felony to employ it as a philosophical premise in the theater, especially when the jokes it engenders pay off as frequently as they do here.
It’s also evident, however, that this is an early work by a young writer trying to Say It All. S&F is a kind of sojourn through the minds and hearts of the playwrights whom Ravenhill most admires. From a gritty, sardonic realism that smacks of any number of stage and film works by Mike Leigh, the writing careens into Genet-like psychodrama via a pit stop at an oasis of early Harold Pinter. I don’t know if Ravenhill ever saw Lyle Kessler’s Orphans, but it sure looks that way when a wealthy mentor keeps giving quasi-comedic life lessons to the maligned and abused street urchins he’s taken under his wing.
The play opens and closes with the poverty-drenched image of waifs Robbie (Melik Malkasian) and Lulu (Mariam Parris) trying to spoon-feed their sweet beanpole pal Mark (Andrew Ableson) the contents of a takeout dinner. At the top of the story, delirious from “scag,” Mark pukes their offering onto the grubby couch. By play’s end, after a Candide-like odyssey in 14 scenes, he’s capable of taking a bite. Therein is expressed the play’s fragile hope of redemption.
In the first of three interweaving stories, Mark tries to break free of his dependence on drugs and romance, with an independence that defies the essence of his very tender personality. Spouting 12-step dogma, he walks out on a devastated Robbie, seeking what Mark describes as an interaction that’s “sexual but not personal, or at least not needy.” (Fat chance.)
This drives Mark to a bedsit above a penny arcade, where he has a liaison with a teenage prostitute named Gary (Steven Klein). As the slot machines downstairs chink out their currency, Mark and Gary blithely negotiate the terms of their physical transaction as though they’re discussing a tune-up at Pep Boys.
“I suppose what I’d like,” Mark says, “what I’d really like is to lick your arse.”
“That all?” Gary replies, nonchalant.
“Yes,” Mark affirms. “That’s all.”
“Right,” says Gary. “We can settle up now.”
When they start haggling over the price, one can hear the echoes of Monty Python:
“How much do you want?/Hundred./A hundred pounds? No I’m sorry./All right, if it’s just licking, fifty./Look, I can give you twenty./
Twenty! What d’you expect for twenty?/It’s all I’ve got. I’ve got to keep ten for the taxi.”
Gary finally delivers a coup de grâce in a spin that embodies the play’s twisted affections: “There’s a bloke, right? Rich bloke, big house. Wants me to live with him. So tell me why I should let you lick my arse?”
Mark, growing ever more pathetic as his resolve to keep an emotional distance wilts, becomes smitten with — yet incapable of satisfying — Gary the gormless masochist. As compensation for his aching heart, Mark winds up with a natty suit from Harvey Nichols, paid for (unwittingly) by the “rich bloke.” Chink chink chink go the slot machines.
Meanwhile, in a sardonically ludicrous duet, Lulu and Robbie find themselves juggling cell phones, forced by Brian (Michael James Reed), their Pinteresque godfather (in every sense of that word), into working triple shifts of phone sex to pay for a drug deal gone bad.
These two stories converge in a third when Mark brings Gary home to Robbie and Lulu. The result is a session of psychosexual storytelling — for money, of course (enter Jean Genet) — a study in degradation that literally cuts to the core of Gary’s need to be brutalized, and a psychodrama that strains against the more naturalistic episodes of the play’s first half.
Somehow, Michael Donald Edwards’ sleek staging, punctuated with techno-pop transitions (sound design by Robby Maclean), smoothes out the seams of Ravenhill’s stylistically mismatched wallpaper. Among the other unifiers are Michael Moser’s circus-inspired costumes and R. Bradford Rabe’s spare grunge set: The decrepit couch and a pair of upstage curtain sheets hung on a wire pretty much do the job, while every inch of the theater’s walls and columns is plastered with a pastiche of graffitied posters. None of this would stand a chance, however, if it weren’t for the actors’ devastatingly convincing portrayals, the surgical precision of their whiny south-of-England dialects, and their idiosyncratically yobbish style and faces.
Like the plays of Ravenhill’s Royal Court Theatre predecessors Edward Bond and John Osborne, S&F is a reaction to the inexorable march of privatization that’s leading England (and a good part of the Western world) forward to the social hierarchy of the 17th century. David Hare’s and Caryl Churchill’s plays reacted against the social brutalities inflicted by Margaret Thatcher’s political and economic agendas, against the growing gulf between the rich and the poor. S&F reflects the Tony Blair era, and it’s hard to find much difference. Which partly explains why the play feels a bit like old news.
True, that a bejeweled thug like Brian should weep like a baby at both a Bach cello suite and The Lion King is a very nice touch. And that his drug dealing pays for his kid’s cello lessons provides a pleasingly lucid view of the world economy.
“What are the very first few words in the Bible?” Brian roars to Robbie and Lulu, who are quaking at his feet.
“‘In the beginning’?” Lulu tentatively squeaks.
Eventually, Brian proffers the “correct” opening sentence: “Get the money first.”
In many ways, this scene embodies the play’s multifarious quality: rimshot funny, acutely menacing, and somewhat ingenuous in pawning off its truisms as profundities.