Though prolific, the American playwright Lanford Wilson is not particularly well known in the UK. The Donmar’s revival of Serenading Louie, in a version which was first performed in 1976, shows him to be a thoughtful chronicler of his times, though without the heft of Edward Albee, whose work this play sometimes echoes.
Serenading Louie is about two married couples. Carl and Alex, friends since college, are now in their thirties. Carl and his wife Mary have a daughter while Alex and his wife Gaby haven’t yet taken that step.
Both men have reached a point in their lives and their marriages where they are starting to question where they are going. Alex speaks with a genuine sense of revelation as he describes to Carl the moment it dawned on him he wouldn’t ever change the world in any meaningful way. Yet, with his wife, he sits in near-silence as she tries to talk to him and, maybe, understand what’s going on his head, growing increasingly tense and irritable. His tooth aches too; a symbol, to him, that the rot has set in.
Carl, a former college quarterback, is aware that his wife is having an affair with his accountant but he seems to be dealing with it reasonably well. He takes some comfort in the thought that she might love this other man and that she is not casually throwing their marriage away. Both couples are trying to work out whether they still love each other, whether they ever loved each other or if they simply loved a part of who the other once was. They seem most content when raking over shared memories; the bonds between them, forged in a sunnier past, are now stretched to fraying point. Following a trip into town to see Deep Throat, they all return home worn out and wired, with their various neuroses creeping closer than ever to the surface.
Wilson’s play builds slowly, shaping and sculpting the four characters, allowing the audience to get a measure of how they interact as couples and as a foursome. Perhaps as a result Simon Curtis’ production takes a while to warm up, it is only in the scene between Carl and Alex that things step up a gear and the whirring and discontent in these two men’s heads becomes audible (the women get no comparably cathartic scene and, despite the best efforts of the performers, they remain rather sketchily drawn). The pacing in the second half of the production feels more controlled, more focussed, and the tension builds gradually towards the play’s final, awful jolt.
The strength of the performances compensates for the occasional dramatic lulls. Jason O’Mara is superb as Carl. Even when he’s calm, there seems to be something coiled and dangerous lying just beneath is skin. With her glorious back-combed red hair, Geraldine Somerville’s Mary seems to be channelling Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights, albeit with a harder shell. Jason Butler Harner's Alex is the less complex of the two men, but there’s something compelling about the hypocrisy of his character as he accuses his wife of banality and neediness while conducting an affair himself. Charlotte Emmerson, as Gaby, at first seems out of step with her character’s nervy, halting way of speaking but she comes into her own in the second half; she grows clear-eyed and sure of herself.
Both narrative strands play out on the same set. Without overplaying the garishness, designer Peter McKintosh has created a sleek, identifiably mid-70s space with taupe hessian wallpaper, an array of liquor bottles on the sideboard and the sedative glow of the television set reflected in the living room window. Sometime characters break into each other’s scenes or pause and address the audience.
As a barometer of how much ideas of masculinity and marriage have changed (or not) since the 1970s, the production is interesting but it’s the strength of the performances that leaves the strongest impression.
Reviewed for musicOMH