There's more than a passing similarity between Richard Nelson's new play, Madame Melville, and the stage adaptation of The Graduate, which has been installed at the Gielgud Theatre since April. Both are set in the 1960s, both tell the story of a young man seduced by an older woman and both are star vehicles.
But for all that, the two plays are most remarkable for being so different despite how much they have in common. First off, the star vehicle. Unlike in The Graduate, which has attracted Kathleen Turner and now Jerry Hall to play middle-aged seductress Mrs Robinson, in Madame Melville, it's the role of the young man that provides a comeback opportunity for Macaulay Culkin, of Home Alone fame.
It's disconcerting at first to see little "Kevin" grown so tall and gawky, but Culkin's face - all bee-stung lips and delicate features - is still immediately recognisable and mischievously cherubic. As such, though he's now 20, Culkin inhabits perfectly the role of 15-year-old Carl, the American student in Paris whose infatuation for his teacher, Madame (in reality a mademoiselle) Melville, escalates quickly by mutual consent. His Carl is at once shy, deferential and awkward, and yet also determined.
Though his teacher (played by French actress Irene Jacob, a star in her own right) is infinitely more learned and experienced, she by no means has the upper hand in their relationship. Her attempts to engineer Carl into bed are sweetly persistent (a ploy to show him an important "art" book - in fact, the Kama Sutra - ensuring ultimate success), and her clinging, canoodling and white-lieing to his parents reveal her to be his equal in terms of neediness and insecurity.
The arrival of Melville's kookie American neighbour, Ruth, who has fled from New Jersey and an abusive spouse, lifts the narrative out of the confines of a two-hander. Madeleine Potter delivers the play's strongest personality as well as its strongest performance. For a few exciting moments, there's even an undercurrent of sexuality and jealousy that suggests we might be heading for a three-in-a-bed romp.
That possibility is nipped in the bud - which, depending on how fraught you like your drama, is the real problem with Nelson's play. Nothing much happens. Carl spends a day and a night with Madame until his authoritarian father comes and drags him away. And that's about it. The memory is filtered through intervening decades by a middle-aged Carl (in which, speaking direct to the audience, Culkin is less believable) who, though his narration oozes bittersweet nostalgia, does little to explain the significance of the incident to his later life.
But perhaps I'm demanding too much obviousness. Madame Melville is a subtle play, directed and performed subtly - which, if not exactly a gripping evening, isn't necessarily a bad thing.