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Fifty Words

Michael Weller's 2008 play, which transfers from the Theatre Royal Bath to the Arcola, is a 'modern Strindbergian classic', says Michael Coveney

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Michael Weller is one of America's very best contemporary playwrights; "Talkin' 'bout my generation" could be his motto, from his early ensemble studies like Moonchildren and Fishing, through his screenplay for Hair and now this planned trilogy of interlocking two-character plays focussed on sexual relationships and trauma.

Richard Clothier as Adam and Claire Price as Jan
It's all very up close and personal to put it mildly in this second play of the trilogy – there should be fifty words for love, like Eskimos have for snow – which arrives in Dalston in Laurence Boswell's lacerating production from the Theatre Royal in Bath.

Richard Clothier and Claire Price give two of the most compelling and upsetting performances of the year as a couple tearing each other to shreds through the night, the first night they have spent alone in their Brooklyn home since their son was born nine years ago; he's on a sleepover with a school friend, and that doesn't go too well, either.

Clothier plays Adam Penzius, the same architect played by Roger Allam in the first play, What the Night Is For, in the West End ten years ago; in that play, Adam was prosecuting his adulterous affair with bipolar Melinda Metz (played by Gillian Anderson) who hovers in the background of this one. Price is the aggrieved wife, Janine.

How Weller shifts his couple through an impromptu seduction scenario over champagne and chopsticks to arguments about the boy's school report (he's taken to hiding under huddles of clothes), to "how we met" (raunchily, in a lift and on a Manhattan taxi ride), to domestic niggles, to accusation, confession and fall-out, is a master class in dramatic control and revelation.

And I don't think there was anyone in the Arcola audience who didn't feel wrung out and personally addressed by the end. Weller nails things about all of our lives with deadly precision, and has a glinting gift for the surprise phrase: Janine is "retreating behind a bale of irritation" while marriage is defined as "two people who disappoint each other not enough to go their own way".

Clothier and Price play this dance of betrayal, compromise and disappointment to perfection, he mitigating his toe-rag status with some (hard to justify) claim to being hard done by, while Price, tensely bound up in the struggle to set up her new online business, is literally stripped of all faith in, and respect for, her partner; even that doesn't quite finish them off.

In Janine's case, the pram in the hall has been the enemy of promiscuity, perhaps, but it's one of the great things about the play that at its centre is a renewal of the raw, humanising carnality that got them into this stew in the first place. This is a wild, wise and wonderful piece of theatre, a modern Strindbergian classic, I'd say.


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