Actor and playwright Saul Rubinek believes that at every table in every restaurant in the world, terrible advice is constantly being dished out between friends, setting a course for messed up relationships and damaged lives. This play follows the consequences of a couple of spectacularly misguided – or, perhaps, malicious – bits of advice on four middle-aged residents of Los Angeles.
Nervy, self-confessed neurotic Stanley (Andy Nyman), or Stinky to his “friends”, looks up to the overgrown college jock Jake (Quantum Leap’s, and latterly Enterprise‘s, Scott Bakula making his British stage debut), and has been coming to him for advice all his life. Not that it has served him particularly well – in his mid-forties he is in a relationship with Delilia (Sharon Horgan) but devastated by the fact that she can’t have children, sleeping with his ex-wife, and suspended from work for having unburdened himself – emotionally – in front of a student.
His old friend, Jake, is porn-obsessed, self-absorbed, impulsive and, you suspect, a very bad influence on Stinky. Jake has “settled” for Hedda (Caroline Quentin), a moneyed divorcee mom who tolerates Jake’s dalliances in return for a man – and a well-kept home – to come back to at night; Jake, bafflingly, is the man whom Stinky believes will steer him right when it comes to his messy love-life.
Rubinek’s play is billed as a ‘dark, dirty and dangerous’ comedy, and apart from Bakula, the assembled cast members are best known for their comedy roles, but in fact the more they play up the dramatic aspect of the material, the better Frank Oz’s production is. Caroline Quentin, in particular, excels in this area, her performance a world away from her schtick in frothy sitcoms such as the BBC’s Life of Riley. As the fiery Hedda, she is sexy and playful one moment, and threatening violence over a broken lamp the next; when things, inevitably, go wrong with Jake her initial outrage turns to a quiet rationalism and dignity that is genuinely effecting. Scott Bakula, too, is at his best when he is eventually allowed to bring a little bit of depth to his character, and the audience get to see that a life consisting mainly of meaningless relationships and drink, isn’t making Jake quite as happy as he has made out.
There are in fact a lot of serious issues bubbling away beneath the surface of Rubinek’s play and it’s a relief when these are touched upon in more depth, rather than smothered with a succession of gags. If anything, he should have pushed this further; the play tells us that the prospect of childlessness is disturbing Stinkey, but gives the audience little idea of how Delila feels about it. And just why is Jake so nervous around Hedda much of the time? There are glimpses of something a lot more complex going on – and ambiguity is no bad thing – but the play pulls back from the things that make it interesting and leaves some potentially intriguing paths unexplored.
This is not to say Oz’s production isn’t enjoyable, far from it. The smutty banter between Jake and Stinky is sharply written and naturally delivered, and certain elements of the drama really do work; but the thing that holds the production together and keeps it entertaining and engaging is the energy and rapport of the cast. The legendary Oz has elicited some very fine performances from them and the cast, to an extent, outshine the material.
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