Some plays are like dogs. They sniff around a series of lampposts but never actually raise their legs.
So it is with Wallace Shawn's new play at the National Theatre. At 100 minutes, it is around an hour too long, opening with a seemingly interminable 15-minute monologue by a TV writer and former playwright named Robert, introducing the story and the other characters. I'm not against introductory monologues as an expositional device -- I use them myself -- but this one badly needs trimming.
The characters are in a somewhat run-down theatre club named The Talk House for a reunion, ten years after a production of one of Robert's not-very-good plays. 'I want the old days back. Where have they gone?' one character says. So the first lamppost receiving a desultory sniff is the theme of memory and time, explored so much better by Harold Pinter.
Among the media and theatre people assembled, there are successes and failures. Robert's TV show is a worldwide hit, and the lead actor Tom is a household name. But some of the others haven't done so well. Nellie, who runs the club, has clearly seen better days, and waitress Jane is a bit-part TV actress whose career never took off. Are we perhaps in Arthur Miller territory? But the theme is never properly explored.
The odd man out and ghost at the feast is Dick, a decayed ex-actor, who is staying at the club while recovering from being beaten up by unnamed 'friends'. Dick floats in and out of the group but doesn't have anything much to do. His life as a failure and the reasons why he doesn't seem to mind being beaten up are not explored. The character, played by Shawn himself, seems to be there mainly to provide a juicy role for the author. Another lamppost sniffed and missed.
There's a lot of chatter about the death of the theatre and the rise of TV which may puzzle a London audience, but that doesn't lead very far either. Third lamppost.
About halfway through, we get a hint of something interesting. One character, followed by a second, then a third, admits to having taken part in 'targeting' and 'murdering'. Casually killing people for money on behalf of the government appears to be a guilt-free activity, roughly equivalent to occasional prostitution to pay the bills. Some of the targets are sheep herders in Malaysia, others are in Nigeria. Some are closer to home on the streets. They are 'people who are likely to harm us'. Or just people who are inconvenient.
There's a potentially vicious satire to be written about America's acceptance of violence (drone strikes against potential terrorists abroad and gun killings at home). Unfortunately, this play isn't it. Shawn cleverly punctures the realistic facade he has built up in the first half of the play, but the unsettling new theme doesn't develop from debate into dramatic action. None of it seems chillingly plausible in the way that a play like James Rushbrooke's Tomcat does. Another lamppost.
'What was all that about?' one member of the preview audience asked as we left the Dorfman theatre at the end, by which time I had been regularly looking at my watch for at least half an hour. This show is well directed by Ian Rickson, who has done much much better things in his distinguished career, and there are some very good performances, notably by Sinead Matthews as Jane.
But this play strikes me as a piece of self-indulgence. It's too clever by half. There's a potentially nice murder story lurking in there somewhere, perhaps a classic black comedy about American attitudes to killing, or a topical play about terrorism. Unfortunately, Shawn has been too lazy to go beyond his first draft and write it.