Sexual Perversity in Chicago

David Mamet
Comedy Theatre
(2003)

You will need to book early to get tickets for this revival of David Mamet's mid-1970's frank comedy of sexual manners that has not been seen in London since that time.

With Matthew Perry from Friends and two Hollywood stars in Minnie Driver (Circle of Friends and Hope Springs) and Hank Azaria (Quiz Show and Godzilla), the Box Office staff have had to work overtime and the House Full signs have been dusted down.

The question with star vehicles like this is whether the hype can conceivably justified. If all that people want from a night out is to see a star reliving a TV role on stage then will always be satisfied. Chandler from Friends appearing before us brings about general delight even if he doesn't do much.

This production, though is much more than that. Lindsay Posner's direction is very slick and Jeremy Herbert's design, all contrasting bold colours for both set and costumes; with scenes divided by images of Chicago and period rock music, could well win awards. His use of cut-down spaces for short scenes works extremely well and gives the show a feel that TV and film regulars will find familiar.

This all sets things up for the battle of the sexes (almost to the death) between two Jewish couples each of whom represents an archetype. For subject matter and witty dialogue, Sexual Perversity in Chicago could have been written by Woody Allen, but only after a very bad trip.

Azaria plays Bernie, a rabid misogynist who regards women as meat and tells the tall sexual tales of a man whose luck is rarely in. There is a vague suggestion that this may be a reaction to abuse as a child but human nature could be more to blame.

Perry is Danny, his young work colleague and acolyte. Unfortunately, this part is not great, as Danny has no personality to speak of and all that Perry can do is put on dumb looks that have his fans in raptures.

Minnie Driver plays the bitter Joan, a feminist rather like the playwright's Oleanna and again a bit of a cameo role. She is unforgiving and in many ways a female mirror of Bernie. When they meet, sparks fly but neither deserves or gets any sympathy.

The only sympathetic character is Joan's flat-mate, Kelly Reilly's Deborah. She is a nice young girl who falls in love with Danny and moves in with him. Unfortunately, within a few weeks, they become junior models of Bernie and Joan, throwing shocking accusations at each other, in one case drawing audible gasps from the audience, and building up fiery hatred.

In Mamet's world, to be clever can be a real drawback as this is a recipe for over-analysing and looking down on the world. To be dumb isn't a lot better. His dialogue always sparkles and Posner ensures that it is sharply delivered.

Many of the lines are extremely funny and Azaria in particular plays the part of the awful Bernie with gusto. Surprisingly, he is more likely to be matched on the female side by Deborah, played by Kelly Reilly with a touching mixture of vulnerability and guts, than by the more obvious alter ego, Joan.

There is much truth and good humour about the gender battles of the 70s (and subsequently) underneath the macho braggadocio and feminist rhetoric. That may not matter too much to the star spotters who will thoroughly enjoy seeing their idols in the flesh. They might even enjoy the play too, if they are not too shocked by the subject matter.

"Sexual Perversity in Chicago" runs until 2nd August

Reviewer: Philip Fisher