Theatre in Review: Invincible (59E59)
It was a funny experience seeing Invincible the night before the snap election that brought Theresa May and the Conservative Party to its knees, for Torben Betts' play aims to examine the cultural and economic divides that have brought the United Kingdom to its present state of stalemate. That the play is only marginally more successful than May's campaign is cause for regret; Betts understands what ails his country, but his point is so broadly argued, and so stylistically wobbly, that it fails to land.
This is a genre piece, one of those having-the-neighbors-over-for-drinks pieces beloved by playwrights ever since Edward Albee outlined the rules for Get the Guests. The formula is simple: Establish that the host couple is under some form of stress, bring on the invitees, and watch the fur fly. We are in the home of Oliver and Emily, Londoners who, following financial reverses, have moved north, where the living is cheaper. (Emily has dismissed London as "a hideous capitalist gangbang," but Oliver's heart resides on the banks of the River Thames.) He had an editorial position at the Department of Defense and is trying to establish a freelance career; she is an artist whose drip paintings suggest she has a bright future forging the works of Jackson Pollock. (One of her works is titled "The Reunification of the Body and Soul in Times of Grieving.")
They are also a prize pair of pills, politically correct to a fault. They live a meat-free, alcohol-free, smoke-free, fun-free existence. There's a large copy of Das Kapital sitting on the coffee table. Emily, who wears her moral superiority like a chic suit from Harvey Nichols, has nothing but contempt for Oliver's mother; unmoved by the fact that the lady hasn't long to live, she dismisses her as "a bigoted, right-wing, Christian fundamentalist." "She's hardly a fundamentalist," replies Oliver, lamely, earning one of the evening's bigger laughs. The tension between husband and wife is exacerbated when Emily discovers that Oliver rejoined "the same Labor Party that we have spent fifteen years despairing about." Oliver, getting fed up, replies acidly, "Comrade Chomsky, I presume." He is further unnerved by Emily's throwaway comment that she is "trying to move beyond sex."
Oddly, they have invited the neighbors, Dawn and Alan, over for drinks (of tea), despite the fact that Emily has taken an instant loathing to their cat, whom she characterizes as "a ghastly, bird-murdering brute crapping on my courgettes and terrifying my children's guinea pigs half to death and making sure precisely no greenfinch, no robin, no tit, not even a bloody sparrow ever comes within half a mile of my feeders out there." The embarrassments begin when Dawn arrives, dressed in a hot orange spaghetti-strap cocktail dress that hoists her barely concealed bosom; a pair of killer stilettos completes the look. In contrast, Alan shows up in sweatpants and a polo shirt, neither of which hides his beer gut; armed with several cans of that particular beverage, he is in a state of high despair over the losses of his favorite football team. A natural performer -- he once did a little singing and stand-up before giving it up to be a postman -- he is loaded with terrible jokes and prone to reminiscing, weepily, about how Dawn -- the most beautiful woman at school -- chose him. So caught up is he that he doesn't notice Dawn's lethal stares.
The first act has some amusing moments, most notably when Alan, learning that Emily is a painter, brings over some of his own cat portraits -- painted in what might charitably be called a primitive style -- and Emily decides to indulge in a little honest criticism. But all four characters are drawn so broadly that they quickly become grating, what with Emily pontificating, Alan carrying on like a ten-year-old, Dawn fuming, and Oliver surreptitiously leering at Dawn's décolletage. The debacle over the cat paintings leads to the revelation that Alan and Dawn have a son in the army, deployed to the Middle East; they really don't take to Emily's comment that young men like him "are being sacrificed at the altar of imperialism, for the sake of oil merchants and arms dealers." But for the occasional exception of Oliver -- a professional peacemaker with an ear for the offensive remark -- the characters roll along their appointed tracks, unable to communicate with each other in any meaningful way.
Any pretense at humor is dropped in the seriously overloaded second act, which jumps ahead in time and includes adultery, a marital breakup, a nervous breakdown, at least four reported deaths, and a surprise bequest. It's a heavy load, even without the characters making so many speeches; they are marooned in a no man's land between satire and sincerity, figures of fun in the first act and objects of tragedy in the second, a strategy that Betts -- at least in this case -- isn't able to pull off. Stephen Darcy's direction doesn't try to resolve this gulf in styles; instead, he takes each scene as it comes, leaving it up to the actors to sort it out.
Under these circumstances, the actors score intermittently. Alastair Whatley captures Oliver's self-loathing and tendency to ramble on. ("You talk a lot, don't you," is Dawn's response to his first attempt at ice-breaking chat.) Emily Bowker can't make Emily anything more than a pursed-lips prig, even when we learn of the tragedy in her past that drives her neurotic behavior, although there is something touching about her admission that she "is never at peace with the present moment." Elizabeth Boag, as Dawn, makes the most of an Act II speech in which she bares her unhappiness at being stuck in a marriage to a man she can't really talk to. Graeme Brookes generates some honest amusement from Alan's deflated response to Emily's scathing comments about those cat paintings, but the more strident he gets ("I'm British and proud!"), the more a caricature he becomes.
Victoria Spearing's set design places Oliver and Emily's all-white furniture inside a vintage slate-gray house; it makes a strong impression, although the lack of places to sit (aside from a tiny sofa) means that the characters must wander the room, sometimes standing in a straight line. There's also an amusing effect -- a toy train crossing the top of the set, representing Emily and Oliver's move north -- although it is a rather whimsical touch for the rather cranky, strident play Invincible turns out to be. Her costumes certainly draw a strong contrast, but -- especially in the cases of Dawn's dress and Alan's T-shirt, emblazoned with "England: It's in the blood" -- they may be a little too on the money. Andy Purves' lighting and Max Pappenheim's sound design -- the latter of which includes football broadcasts and a speech by the Queen plus the Vera Lynn classic "There Will Always Be an England" -- are both solid.
"But we're all English, aren't we?" wonders Emily at one point. Well, yes, and that's the problem, since neither couple is able to appreciate the other's dilemma. It's a mordant point, and, if Betts had worked more felicitously, Invincible might have done for the English class divide what Lynn Nottage's Sweat has done for the current state of American politics. Instead, it's all over the place, a stew of comedy, drama, and editorial commentary that never really coheres. -- David Barbour