Serenading Louie

Lanford Wilson
Donmar Warehouse
(2010)

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Burn This has remained embedded in my memory for 20 years, memorable both in itself and also for stunning performances by John Malkovich and Juliet Stevenson in the old Portakabin that was Hampstead Theatre. It is therefore a mystery as to why Lanford Wilson has been neglected in London almost ever since.

Serenading Louie is an earlier play, written and set in the 1970s and, like so much work from the other side of the Atlantic, exploring the failure of The Great American Dream.

It does so by focussing on two married thirtysomething Chicagoan couples who should be riding the crest of a wave of economic and social happiness. However, they come from an uncertain generation that is uncomfortably placed between their straitjacketed parents and the youngsters for whom the Swinging Sixties removed all social constraints.

Alex, played by American actor Jason Butler Harner, is a successful, scandal-busting lawyer on the brink of announcing his intention to become a Congressman. By the end of the evening, we can see why, as he has the sleazy morals of the politicians whom we take so much pleasure in vilifying today.

His pretty but diffident wife Gabby (Charlotte Emmerson) may struggle to finish a sentence but could have hidden depths and should relish the fresh start offered by a move to Washington and the lifestyle of the well-to-do.

Their friends, to our eyes occupying the same bland but comfortable living room, are a kind of gender reversal. Geraldine Somerville is the stylish Mary, a former homecoming queen with overflowing self confidence. She is married to Alex's best friend Carl, Jason O'Mara playing the successful businessman who was once a legendary college quarterback but is now far too fond of alcoholic escapism.

This could have been a predictable 2¼ hours spent dissecting vacant lives but Lanford Wilson knows how to unsettle not only his characters but also the audience.

However, that is only part of the pleasure to be derived from Serenading Louie as its observations about political, social, religious and married life in that long ago era are almost always subtly spot-on and frequently hilarious.

The happy facades of these marriages are soon exposed as shams, when we discover first that the childless Gabby and Alex are barely on speaking or sleeping terms and then the reason why. Their problems are mirrored in the other household, where Mary, despite still loving her Carl, has started an affair with his accountant, the unseen Donald.

Once they arrive on the slippery slope of marital discord, the acceleration to an unexpected but shocking climax is swift.

Wilson cleverly interleaves scenes and allows characters to interrogate others in a novel but nonetheless primarily naturalistic play, which allows director Simon Curtis, who is lucky enough to be blessed with a fine cast, to build the drama fluently to its final peak.

The women probably fare best, as both Geraldine Somerville (who also enjoys most of the funniest lines and an unspeakably ghastly 70s costume) and Charlotte Emmerson get the kinds of monologues that show off their talents to perfection.

At the moment, the Donmar seems to be concentrating on wordy plays on a small scale but with large meaning. Serenading Louie may today, like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, seem like a piece of social history but also like Albee's masterpiece, many of the issues that Wilson raises are timeless.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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