Sexual Perversity in Chicago

Friday, 16 May, 2003
Review by: 
Alan Bird

Take a comedy called “Sexual Perversity in Chicago”, add three Hollywood stars, Matthew Perry, Minnie Driver and Hank Azaria and stage it in London’s West End and what do you get? Well one would imagine an exhilarating evening of comic delights in which one gets to see acting at its very best.

Sadly, instead one sees three actors plod their way through a dated script that is only slightly more risky than an average episode of Coronation Street. The only thing that makes this play in any way ‘risky’ is the copious use of the four-letter ‘F’ or ‘C’ words.

Matthew Perry plays suppressed Danny, who spends his time messaging his best friend Bernard’s (Hank Azaria) fragile male ego by listening attentively to the most outrageous tales about Bernard’s sexual conquests. This is until Danny meets Deborah (Kelly Reilly) and a brief relationship ensues.

Matthew Perry manages to make his character Danny look perplexed and insecure, but this is all he does. When Danny’s relationship with Debra degenerates into angry words and feelings of resentment his only way of expressing this is to raise his voice - slightly and when Danny looks as if he may be about to confess to hidden homosexual tendencies his only way of conveying his characters discomfit is to try and look even more perplexed. A static and one-dimensional portrayal of what should have been the play’s leading character.

Hank Azaria’s portrayal of Bernard -a misogynist leering jerk - lacks comic timing and wit. His characters’ fowl mouth and self-deluded conviction that he is a girl-magnet because he gets his “rocks out”, is just too repugnant to be funny. There is not an ounce of rascally charm or amoral sophistication in his portrayal; it is hard to believe that even the apprehensive Danny would choose this loathsome toad as his best pal.

Kelly Reilly gives an acceptable performance as Danny’s dim girlfriend, and she brings an air of gracefulness to her character. She bristles with silent resilience when others try to belittle her and though she has only a few good lines, she delivers them well. She instigated a rare bellylaugh from the audience when she says to Danny “I am not a lesbian, but I have had some lesbianic experiences”.

Minnie Driver has a minimal role as the primary teacher Joan, Deborah’s up-tight, man hating flat mate. There is a scene where she discovers two children whom she believes have been playing “Doctors” and reduces them to tears by enquiring if they have touched each other’s genitals. A golden opportunity for some great facial expressions and much needed humour, sadly it is delivered with the same deadpan face and flat jaded voice that Driver gives her character throughout the play.

Lindsay Posner’s production fails to bring Mamet’s 1974 script to life, and designer Jeremy Herbert’s over use of photographic images of Chicago that are projected onto a screen that is lowered in-between each scene, interrupts the flow of the play. The scenes take place within small-departmentalised boxed rooms that inevitably puts far too much emphasises on scenes that are of little consequence. Why lower a screen that covers the stage for three to four seconds just for actors to say two or three uneventful lines, followed by yet another screen lowering. I knew I was losing interest when I began to find the different pictures of Chicago that where projected onto the screen more interesting then the snippets of action that took place when the screen was lifted!! The best part of this production was the seventy’s pop music soundtrack.

This is definitely a play that only star struck fans of Hollywood who wish to see their icons in the flesh are likely to enjoy, and even that may be doubtful.

Alan Bird


Next review is from one of our readers
Graham Spencer
JUne 2003

I love bums on seats, I really do. Much as it’s nice to spread out whilst watching a performance, its better for the cast, audience and theatre as a whole if something is playing to standing room only. Therefore I’ve never joined the outcry when a foreign ‘star’ comes and plays to sold out houses. After all, no one complains if Judi Dench sells out a run and she’s a Hollywood Darling! Besides, I actually thought Madonna, Matt Damon etc gave great performances last year and brought in the sort of young audiences most theatres have vowed to attract. However, part of their success was in the choice of play. Sexual Perversity in Chicago has managed to attract stars and brought in a young audience whilst simultaneously being easily the worst thing I have seen on stage for several years.

Early plays in a successful playwright’s career, written when they are still finding their feet, are often ‘rediscovered’ after being overlooked in favour of later, better plays. This is an early David Mamet play, someone whose other work I have always enjoyed, but which just has nothing to say to an audience. The central premise of the play is the misogyny of men. Big deal. I didn’t take offence because I am a man, but the execution of the premise was so dreadfully tedious and unengaging, not helped by the cast of four who were sleepwalking through their parts. The repetition of the one ‘observation’ on human nature through short scenes in the characters’ lives became annoying very quickly and there was literally nothing else to the script.

It is not often the leads are so bad that the supporting characters become the centre of attention, but Matthew Perry and Minnie Driver achieved such a level of synthetic and humourless acting that you wondered why they bothered. Hank Azaria was easily the best of the four, but since he was playing the most repulsive character there was no real connection with the audience and there must surely be a better vehicle for his skills. The fact that the unknown Kelly Reilly was able to hold her own with another melamine performance may or may not be an indicator of ability, but I hope casting agents weren’t in the audience.

The real heroes of the evening were the unseen stage crew who achieved the rapid set changes necessary for the play to work at all. It is a sign of a bad play when I was hoping for the screen that rapidly descends without reason between each scene to break, just for some excitement. Even having bought a relatively cheap seat I felt cheated, and charging West End prices for only 80 minutes of anything is outrageous.

Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Such a tantalisingly good name. Such a complete waste of an evening.

(Graham Spencer)

What other critics had to say.....

NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "A dreary, dated collection of snippety scenes...The acting ranges from the barely competent to the goodish." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says,"The four actors are perfectly matched in Lindsay Posner's production." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "If you want reasonably well performed proof that Mamet was a precociously gifted dramatist at the age of 27, here it is. His dialogue sizzles and swaggers." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "The piece now seems tame, especially since Lindsay Posner's stylishly designed but shakily acted production never delivers the required killer punch...A dispiriting evening then, rescued only by Azaria's splendidly grotesque performance." RHODA KOENIG for THE INDEPENDENT says, "High-powered cast does mediocre comedy no favours."

External links to full reviews from popular press

The Guardian
The Times
Evening Standard

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