How the English love playing at being naughty boys! Think of the young Martin Amis (or the middle-aged Martin Amis, for that matter). Think of Damien Hirst. And think of Matthew Bourne, who conquered Broadway and the West End with his all-male Swan Lake a few years ago. (I hated it-not because of its all-maleness, which lost its shock value after about two minutes, but because its pretentious and unconvincing plot and vulgarized dance movement debased both Tchaikovsky’s great score and Petipa and Ivanov’s profound conception.)
Bourne’s latest, Play Without Words, now a howling success at B.A.M., has stirred up a lot of talk about whether it’s a dance work or a theater work. (Wisely, considering how limited his abilities as a choreographer are, Bourne says he’s not very interested in dance per se.) Actually, it’s a play without words and, for the most part, a play without dance. It’s an overextended, undersignificant, occasionally clever comic strip of a theater piece based on the Robin Maugham novel The Servant, which we know best from the 1963 Joseph Losey–Harold Pinter film version starring Dirk Bogarde, James Fox and Sarah Miles.
Remember it? A rich, young playboy falls under the malign influence of his cockney servant, is seduced by the housemaid, loses his elegant fiancée, and sinks into debauchery. There were homoerotic overtones (what a sensation!) and a cold eye cast on the real perversity of English life, the class system. All this was unsettling back in the 60’s, but today it’s more old hat than New Wave. Bourne’s piece is unsettling not because of its content, but because of its breakneck and almost nonstop busyness. To pep things up, he’s had a brainstorm: If one feckless young master and one ominous servant are interesting, why not have three of each? And why not have three fiancées, and three “old friends,” and two housemaids? (For that matter, why not three housemaids? Your guess is as good as mine.)
These multi-characters are relentlessly programmed to weave round each other without noticing their alter egos or knocking into each other. There are so many people rushing about that I was reminded of those ant farms kids used to be given in the hope that they’d get interested in science. As a result, the eye rarely gets to rest on any single person or action. Everything is so busy, busy, busy! In fact, the only effective encounter in the entire work is a slow seduction scene between one young master and a housemaid on top of a wooden kitchen table; it’s a protracted semi-dance sequence of some wit, and it comes as a welcome relief.
Granted, the sex is not very sexy-the poor chap is portrayed as an awkward, virginal adolescent, callow beyond belief, and the girl is in the oo-la-la tradition of the kind of coyly suggestive English comedy that once infected the West End. (Will I ever forget No Sex, Please, We’re British? It ran for centuries.)
Play Without Words has a jazz combo stage left, deftly performing a waily, jazzy score (by Terry Davies), and there’s a complicated set (by Lez Brotherston) with a tilted, drunken backdrop in the already dated style of the National Theatre’s revival of An Inspector Calls; I believe it’s meant to be Expressionistic, implying that Things Are Not What They Seem. There are bridges, ramps, staircases, elevators and doors, and believe me, they’re in constant use. One fiancée, for instance, may be coming through a door while another is prancing up the stairs and the third is emerging from an upstage phone booth.
The fiancées are all of a piece-Bourne isn’t committed to differentiating among his women characters. The masters are somewhat more distinguishable from each other, although they’re uniformly weedy and effete-naturally, since they’re upper-class. (To hammer home just how effete they are, they’re wearing glasses.) The servants are beefier, one of them more fully delineated-therefore nastier-than the others; he even bears a slight resemblance to Dirk Bogarde. But they’re still brothers under the skin: In a seamy (and endless) pub scene, they nervously reveal their shared homoerotic masochism. The really sexy guys are the friends, particularly the one who not only wears a casual checked shirt but plays the trumpet-sure signs of virility. Accordingly, they both accommodate the servants by playing sadist and help out the uppercrusty ladies, who certainly get no satisfaction from their schoolboyish fiancées.
It may all sound lusty and sensual, but forget it-the sex is paint-by-numbers, just as occasional outbursts of social dancing are pure pastiche. The only thing that’s for real is the clockwork precision of all the darting around-the cigarettes lit and stubbed out; the drinks poured and downed; the doorbells rung and answered. Bourne may be aspiring to the ingenuities of an Alan Ayckbourn play, or-better yet-the genius of Feydeau’s remorseless mechanisms, but he’s got nothing to tell us. Even when the servants eventually gain the upper hand, there’s no psychic kick-if you’re thinking of Genet’s The Maids, don’t. This isn’t farce noir; it’s synchronized acting.
And it takes no risks. In an early scene, when Servant No.1 undresses his master while Servant No. 2 dresses his, they stop short of full frontal-this, in a world where full frontal is practically de rigueur. A woman sitting in front of me was outraged: She hadn’t schlepped all the way to Brooklyn to look at some nerdy boys in their jockeys.