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Review Round-up: Critics Fail to Serenade Louie

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The Donmar Warehouse last week dusted off Lanford Wilson’s rarely seen 1970 Off-Broadway play Serenading Louie, in a production, directed by Simon Curtis, which opened on 16 February 2010 (previews from 11 February) and continues until 27 March.

Wilson’s four-hander paints a portrait of two suburban American couples. Friends since college, Carl and Alex, are struggling to deal with the harsh realities of adulthood as they enter their thirties. Disillusioned by work and fighting to keep their marriages alive, they’re desperately trying to make sense of it all.

The cast comprises American American Jason Butler Harner, making his UK stage debut as Alex, alongside Irishman Jason O'Mara as Carl, and Britons Charlotte Emmerson and Geraldine Somerville as their wives. The production is designed by Peter McKintosh and, following the Donmar, tours to Salford, Leicester and Truro.

While Serenading Louie found a firm fan in Whatsonstage.com’s Michael Coveney, who greeted it “a modern American classic” that is “a pleasure to discover”, other overnight critics sang a much different tune. Despite echoes of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and comparisons with Edward Albee, Alan Ayckbourn and Tennessee Williams, Lanford Wilson’s “deracinated”, “vague”, “dreary and desperate” work was widely viewed as a poor relation to those of other, greater playwrights. There was, however, high praise for the “truly heroic acting” of the company.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “Lanford Wilson’s 1970 Off-Broadway play proves a real corker … It’s given a tremendously taut and enthralling production by Simon Curtis … The acting is stylish and magnificent ... visiting American actor Jason Butler Harner is superb, both haunted and driven, as the shooting star political lawyer Alex whose wife Gabrielle, played with unrecognisable, vulnerable hesitancy by Charlotte Emmerson, is talking to the roast and teetering on the brink … this play has marked elements of Edward Albee and Neil LaBute … It’s all brilliantly done. The Donmar has surely revealed a modern American classic, and one that is as much a surprise as it is a pleasure to discover.”
  • Rhoda Koenig in the Independent (three stars) – “The play feels as deracinated as the characters, the first act especially vague. Wilson's dialogue is often delicate, but more often thin. His looking-backward play lacks the obsessive quest for the moment life took a wrong turn or the ruthless psychological cross-examination of earlier and later playwrights … Simon Curtis' sensitive production has excellent performances from Jason Butler Harner, the only American, as well as from Jason O'Mara and Geraldine Somerville, the last of whom catches perfectly the lofty but dangerous obliviousness of the rich. Charlotte Emmerson's Gaby, though fine once she starts expressing the rage it has taken nearly all her energy to deny, seems, until then, to be dim-witted or stoned rather than repressed … The actors seem to miss an essential American vigour and openness. There is an overly careful quality to both acting and play which, finally, leaves the audience as detached from these privileged but empty characters as they are from themselves.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (two stars) –“Of all the plays in all the world, why on earth did Michael Grandage choose this one? That was the question that nagged at me last night throughout the American playwright Lanford Wilson’s dreary and finally desperate drama … It is merely grindingly dull for two hours, before turning melodramatic in the final 20 minutes, with sudden revelations and anguished confessions … Wilson tries to give his jaded scenario some zip by the technical device of using a single stage set to represent the couple’s two separate living rooms, a trick Ayckbourn has deployed with far more invention. Some of the characters also deliver embarrassing asides to the audience … One only has to think of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Pinter’s Betrayal, which both explore similar dramatic territory, to realise just how feeble and underpowered Wilson’s play is … Simon Curtis directs an efficient but curiously soulless production and the cast do what they can ... Jason O'Mara has a wounded humanity about him that is as close to as this play comes to warmth, heart or real drama. It’s not, however, nearly enough to save the show.”
  • Lyn Gardner in the Guardian (two stars) – “It is telling that the best and most emotionally authentic moment in Lanford Wilson's talky 1970 play, which is relocated in Simon Curtis' production to the early 70s despite looking like the mid-60s in Peter McKintosh's design, is silent … This is the stuff of boulevard drama, and dressing it up with Ayckbourn-style tricks of two couples in one space, or theatrical asides, doesn't make it any more interesting. The second act, with its Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? echo is slightly more perky, not least because Mary delivers some deliciously barbed observations. But this is navel-gazing stuff saved only by a pertinent use of music and some truly heroic acting. The cast hurl the dialogue at each other as if it is a hand grenade, but the failure of the words to explode even during the final melodramatic moments is symptomatic of this play's ashen emptiness.”
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “The characters whinge with a determination that we British, who are globally acknowledged to be ace whingers, would have to work overtime to match … Well before the end I was itching to shout to them to stop and to beg Lanford Wilson to bring on some positive, resilient characters, like Chekhov’s three sisters or his Uncle Vanya … The play is too wordy, but many of the words are sophisticated and subtle … The acting is consistently so strong you overlook the play’s faults, which would also include a failure adequately to establish the political and social context and an ending that even Jason O'Mara can’t save from seeming melodramatic … O’Mara gets the mix of good nature and unease all right and, briefly, the rage. The growing darkness deep within eludes him – as it would almost every actor on both sides of the Atlantic and, probably, the Pacific too.”
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