Sexual Perversity in Chicago

David Mamet
Living Pictures / Cegin Productions
Sherman Cymru, Cardiff

Ioannis Sholto and Lizzie Rogan Credit: Simon Gough Photography
Robert Bowman Credit: Simon Gough Photography
Claire Cage Credit: Simon Gough Photography

Sexual Perversity In Chicago, the play on which David Mamet (arguably America’s greatest living playwright, and unarguably its most influential) initially built his reputation, is approaching its 40th anniversary. It is perhaps heartening to note that it still has the ability to shock audiences with its unflinchingly frank language and spine-tinglingly cynical take on the gender wars.

Living Pictures’ production takes place in-the-round, with those audience members brave enough to grab a ground-floor seat forced to get up close and personal with the actors. The set, designed by Jacob Hughes, is minimal—all the furniture in the multiple locations is played by a trio of filing cabinets, deftly manoeuvred by the cast; a blanket appears whenever a bed is required; full-length mirrors adorn the corners of the playing area.

The actors change costumes in full view of the nervous spectators and subtly interact with one another during the frequent scene changes. Nevertheless, the 1970s Chicago setting is effortlessly evoked by a soundtrack consisting of contemporaneous songs—although this does occasionally overpower the dialogue.

Ostensibly the story of the brief relationship between office drone Danny and illustrator Deborah, the piece is really about their unpleasant best friends, the extravagantly, offensively sexist Bernie, played by the ebulliently ursine Robert Bowman (who also directs) and the waspishly intellectual underachiever Joan, an effortlessly brittle Claire Cage; characters who only hint at the hurt which has engendered their bitterness. The fact that they dominate might be seen as a fault with the play; alternatively, it could be that Mamet is making the point that in the real world, it is those who choose to inflict their unhappiness on others who so often hold sway.

Mamet famously disdains About Last Night, the Hollywood adaptation—it does nevertheless achieve what his original text fails to, at least in terms of illuminating the reasons why the relatively optimistic younger couple, attractively played by Ioannis Sholto and Lizzie Rogan, might fail to build on a promising beginning. Here, we only get hints of selfishness, which seems to limit the extent to which the drama might resonate more deeply.

A bigger problem is the inconsistent nature of Danny’s character—boyishly naïve and credulous in Bernie’s company, he becomes smart-mouthed in his dealings with Joan, and alternately charming and petulant with Deborah; this is doubtless a legacy of the piecemeal nature of the script’s original development, but it seems somehow more noticeable here than in other productions (Rob Lowe in the film, Matthew Perry in the West End version I saw several years ago).

Productions of Mamet sometimes overplay the profane poeticism of his dialogue, resulting in a dislocatory stiltedness; director Bowman chooses instead to err on the side of naturalism, to bracing and uncomfortable (in a good way) effect, and the actors certainly revel in its frequently hilarious scabrousness.

Compulsive in its charmlessness, Sexual Perversity in Chicago is well worth making the effort to go and see.

Touring (20 February, Torch Theatre, Milford Haven; 22 February, Aberystwyth Arts Centre; 27 February, Pontardawe Arts Centre; 4 - 5 March, Galeri, Caernarfon; 7 March,Y Ffwrnes, Llanelli).

Reviewer: Othniel Smith