Penelope Skinner’s very dark comedy The Village Bike first appeared in 2011 at the Royal Court’s Upstairs Theatre in London. In 2012 it played the Sheffield Theatres, what we would call a regional theatre. Now it’s at the Lucille Lortel on Christopher Street for a commercial off-Broadway run, this time under the direction of Sam Gold, whose The Realistic Joneses is just concluding a run on Broadway.
Mr. Gold, whose work on the recent Picnic revival was impeccable, as it was on Seminar, another character driven play, begins his excellent work by casting with imagination and his actors always add much to clarify and project their author’s words. Even with the controversial The Flickat Playwrights’ Horizons, which I found intolerably slow and unmoving, I was mesmerized by the three actors who brilliantly inhabited three very unappealing people.
Now Ms. Skinner tackles a play in which she explores the sexual drive of a newly impregnated young woman who appears at first glance to be an uncomplicated first time mother in the making, an innocent who is fascinated by the strange new feelings emanating from the hormonal changes in her body. She is “Becky,” comfortably married to good looking “John”, whose sexual interest in her has declined to a virtual zero as her interest in him has zoomed to where she’s virtually begging for some satisfaction. No, he’s more interested in reading a book on what to expect when marriage shifts to include an expectant child.
The first hour or so is intriguing but it veers sharply toward the pornographic as Becky finds herself uncharacteristically in pursuit of a dark side she didn’t know existed. She is helped in her search by a local plumber who’s been called to deal with moist pipes and clanging noises in the not quite finished home to which Becky and John have recently moved. In turn another local man enters the picture — a local amateur actor in a costume straight out of The Scarlet Pimpernel. He is Oliver, whose wife Alice is conveniently away on a business trip. He is a local lothario who is only too willing to help Becky cope with her soon all consuming needs.
Double entendres flow freely throughout the well honed dialog which has a merry authentic ring to it. For example, with reference to a bike Becky has acquired for her use in letting off steam, she is told; “No, it’s totally fine. I was probably just riding her a bit hard. She needs a bit of tinkering. Maybe get your husband to have a go.” The metaphor becomes instantly clear, and we are off on a tangential road to the sexual side of town.
Greta Gerwig is a brilliant contradiction — she’s cover girl pretty, totally up front, as shocked by her own behavior as we are to witness it; her Becky is someone we would both love and abhor were we stuck with her in our immediate family. Jason Butler Harner as husband John is tall dark and handsome, a producer of TV commercials who is totally content that his life is moving along exactly as he planned it.
He is far more interested in “The New Pregnancy Ideal” text book than he is in further exploring his wife’s body, and that leaves the door wide open for Oliver, as beautifully played by Scott Shepherd, who has no trouble not confusing sex with love or even passion. He is perfectly happy servicing Becky without a qualm until it is no longer convenient when she, with the soul of a hysteric, becomes troublesome.
There is a neighboring mother of three who is stuck in an unfulfilling marriage. When we add the old plumber to the mix, and Oliver’s wife Alice, who returns just in time to add another spice to the stew, there are ingredients enough to cook up a very special dish, one which might not be digestible by all who imbibe.
As a result, I found myself absorbed, intrigued, even a tad guilty at watching this very intimate little tale unfold, and when it all ended with an uncompromising final moment, I went off into the night trying to remember that I’d spent the evening absorbed, aware that these six characters had been brought to vivid life by an excellent company of actors, and trying to forget that I wouldn’t want to have any of them in my life.
Ms. Skinner has a keen eye and ear for complex characters who are all too human, her wit can skewer, and none of her people has much compassion for anyone else. My final conclusion was that I’d found interesting my visit to three cottages in a little town “somewhere in middle England”, but happy to return home to my apartment in much less scary Manhattan.
The Village Bike is at the MCC Theater at The Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, NYC.
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