This 1974 play first made the name of author David Mamet, who has since had huge success on stage and screen with the likes of American Buffalo, Speed-the-Plow, House of Games, Oleanna and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glen Ross. Written when Mamet was just 27, Sexual Perversity bears the hallmarks of his later work: rapid-fire - and often filthy - dialogue, misogynistic posturing and moral vacuousness.
The beaches, bars and bedrooms of Chicago provide the setting for the 30-odd, mating-and-dating scenes in the lives of four singles seeking emotional as well as sexual sustenance. When Dan (Perry) and Deborah (Reilly) tentatively embark on a live-in romance, they're undermined by their cynical, unattached friends, Bernie (Azaria) and Joan (Driver).
In under-drawn roles, Driver and Reilly (both British) sport faultless accents, while Reilly also exudes natural stage charm. Admittedly benefiting from the juiciest script fillets, Azaria is nonetheless sensational as bitter braggart Bernie, hilariously recounting outlandish tall tales of sexual prowess to mask, as his characters might say in modern American parlance, some serious childhood 'issues'.
It's somewhat hazy why Bernie should hold such sway over Dan, but what's crystal clear is that Perry - whose efforts to banish 'Chandler Bing' mannerisms are admirable even if the resulting deep-voiced bravado doesn't sit altogether naturally - raises his performance whenever he shares the stage with Azaria. The play's opening and closing shots, featuring the men in predatory mode, are by far the most memorable.
Perhaps because of screen reputations of his cast, director Lindsay Posner seems intent on highlighting the cinematic qualities of Mamet's writing - Jeremy Herbert's slick design (reminiscent of his Up for Grabs contributions) using sliding panels that zoom in from all sides to frame each scene like a camera's eye.
Unfortunately, rather than creating a film-like fluidity, these necessitate seemingly endless transitional pauses that, despite blasts of disco music and grainy projections of 1970s street scenes, make the play drag - no small feat considering it's only 80 minutes without an interval.
The most questionable production decision, however, has got to be the choice of staging Sexual Perversity in this manner in the first place. When performed elsewhere, it's usually conjoined with one of Mamet's other one-act plays (as in Sheffield's 2001 pairing of it with The Shawl). As it is, while certainly entertaining, this singular revival does not feel like a full evening - either in theatrical or value-for-money, star-spotting terms.
- Terri Paddock