Joe DiPietro’s gay version of Schnitzler’s La Ronde has yet to be performed in his native United States, but it is making up for it on this side of the pond. Phil Willmott’s production has already played at two London fringe venues, the Finborough and the King’s Head. It now arrives at the Arts in a themed package with Willmott’s other King’s Head transfer, Naked Boys Singing.
F***ing Men follows the structure of its fin-de-siècle predecessor, with ten characters linked in a sexual chain. The advantage of a contemporary gay version is that it’s entirely plausible for characters from different walks of life to bounce off each other in random sexual meetings.
We meet a rent boy selling oral sex to a closeted soldier, who acquires enough confidence to frequent a gay bath-house, where an anonymous encounter links him to a private tutor who is later seduced by his bratty student, and so on. There’s an inevitable dollop of coincidence, with the same young stud separately seducing two straying partners, as well as the vital recurring player who will make the chain into a circle.
The structure of the 90-minute piece is necessarily limiting. With the characters only allowed to relate on a sexual level, the possible conflicts come in finite permutations: closetry, blackmail, cheating partners, a sex worker looking for love. The characters also come and go without the chance for later acquaintance, which may be formally elegant but it’s dramatically restrictive.
DiPietro’s best writing pits a pretentious, neurotic playwright (a bold piece of authorial self-parody) against a wide-eyed young porn-star who hasn’t been doing it long enough to get arrogant. With standout performances by Dan Ford and Adam Unze, this scene busts refreshingly through stereotype but underlines how much the rest of the piece depends on ciphers.
Still, there’s plenty of strong comedy (“I hope I fucking hate this,” says Matthew Clancy’s coiled-spring soldier as he receives his first blow-job), and a subtly upbeat ending offering the possibility of tenderness through a random act of kindness.
The cast, drawn from a rotating company of 13, is in the main thoroughly capable, and Nigel Hook’s cheerfully eclectic set gives a suggestion of each scene’s location. The cheap production values only really intrude when the mobile phone which is crucial to several scenes persists in sounding at the back of the auditorium rather than on the stage.