First Nighter: Fiennes in Shaw's 'Man and Superman,' Patrick Marber's Revived 'Closer,' Mike Bartlett's New 'Game'

03/07/2015 07:15 am ET | Updated May 07, 2015

London -- George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman isn't produced very often, in part because of its length. To be more precise, the entire script isn't frequently staged. The third act, "Don Juan in Hell"--the sequence often considered responsible for its ungainly length--is, however, excerpted more than occasionally.

I'd speculate that many theatergoers who've seen "Don Juan in Hell" several times have never been privy to a performance of the complete play. I'm also thinking that Shaw partisans alerted to a full production are wary of it for the very reason that they're disinclined to endure the famed third act yet again.

Were they to turn up their noses at the prospect now, they'd be missing out on something exquisite: the "Don Juan in Hell" on view as part of the Man and Superman at the National Theatre's Lyttelton and the occasion for some of Ralph Fiennes's finest, fiercest and funniest moments. (The production will be broadcast on May 14.)

The explanation for its mesmerizing effect has a lot to do with the revival being fully directed when most incarnations are only formal readings. As put on its fleet feet crisply and plangently by Simon Godwin and played with full-on fervor by Fiennes as Don Juan, Indira Varma as Ana. Nicholas le Prevost as Ana's father and Tim McMullan as the Devil, Shaw's debate about the virtues and failings of heaven and hell and who gets to go where is hiked to the level of comic genius.

It's the sort of theatrical entertainment you don't want to end. (How many times have you ever heard that said about "Don Juan in Hell"?) Having laughed through it while astonished once more at its unceasingly pungent language, my reaction is: I'm ready to see it again but only if it's directed this well and performed by actors of similar caliber.

For me, the "Don Juan in Hell" incarnation is so accomplished that it made me decide to forget and forgive the off-kilter nature of Godwin's acts one and two. They're the ones in which Jack Tanner (Fiennes, of course) and Ann Whitfield (Varma) tangle Benedict-Beatrice-like over her disguised pursuit of him and his reluctance to share her guardianship with Roebuck Ramsden (le Prevost). Somehow, these frantic occurrences seemed even more frantic as Godwin shaped them.

On the other hand, once "Don Juan in Hell"--which is Tanner's dream--concluded, the fourth act pleased me in its being Shaw doing so light-heartedly well at romantic comedy. The playwright's highly regarded stance as believing in woman's equality with men may not impress as being as enlightened now as it was then, but that doesn't matter when the sheer fun of the action takes effect.
When Patrick Marber's Closer appeared in 1997, the early scene in which two men are involved in a cybersexual encounter was, if not totally new as satire, at least fresh enough to give the play a fueled-rocket takeoff.

Brought back now, Marber's commentary on desensitized contemporary communication is pretty much a "been there, done that" undertaking--or so it seems at the Donmar Warehouse. This may account for the play feeling from start to finish less potent than it did 18 years ago. This may be why its similarity to Tom Stoppard's earlier The Real Thing--with its presentation of two couples who swap partners and then weigh the pluses and minuses of swapping back--lacks the impact it originally had.

Nonetheless, the play still packs some punch as--under David Leveaux's sturdy and well studied direction--Larry (Rufus Sewell), Anne (Nancy Carroll), Dan (Oliver Chris) and Alice (Rachel Redford) stumble effectively on love's lurching merry-go-round.

It's the power in Marber's dialogue as the notion of love is mooted--or something passing for it--that boosts the work. At one point, one of querulous quartet asks, "Is love enough?" For Marber, as he insists through this labile bunch, the answer is, No way.

At another point, one of them says, "I had a choice, and I chose to be selfish." Perhaps a truer line isn't uttered by any of them through the four-hander. With that one depressing confession, Marber puts his finger on a much larger population nowadays calling lust love. And as for stripper Alice, who puts on certain airs by calling herself Alice Ayres, the question becomes, Is anything she ever claims about herself true?

Which is to say, on Bunnie Christie's ultra-modern set with its tall and shifting column filled with Hugh Vanstone's colored lights, Closer remains strong enough. And by the way, does Marber mean "closer" with a hard or soft "s" or both? It's up to you to decide.
Mike Bartlett wrote Cock to be staged in an arena, as if the four characters were involved in a human cockfight. He wrote Bull to be staged in a boxing-ring. Now he's written Game, at the Almeida, and it, too, takes place mostly in an arena-like space. Obviously, he's obsessed with life as combat, but this time he may be pushing his obsession beyond its limit.

The space this time (or should I say "this round"?) is a nicely appointed middle-income two-level flat (Miriam Buether, the designer) that Carly (Jodie McNee) and Ashley (Mike Noble) occupy, eventually with son Liam (Ben Roberts). Their lease includes an extremely unusual condition. To live free, they agree to participate in a game whereby people pay 300 pounds to watch the family and then, should they choose, act on the opportunity to simulate killing the occupants by firing darts and watching their targets slump over in feigned death.

As this goes on, the audience has been divided into four "zones" from which to observe the central game, which is also televised on various monitors. The game's patrons pull their rifle triggers from each zone alternately, under instructions from the game's organizer David (Kevin Harvey).

Bartlett's thematic target is akin to one of those psychological studies that appear to be one thing but are actually another. In this instance, he's attempting to show the audience how easy it is to get caught up in the cruelty of the game, how readily we're prepared to shed our civility and egg the wannabe killers on.

Where he underestimates the very patrons whom he's hoping to enlighten about their barbaric natures is that in the hour-long piece, his purpose becomes obvious after approximately 10 minutes. At about then, he allows his audience to get ahead of him so that they foresee every turn the play will take and realize they have to sit patiently until all turns eventuate.

The only development that fooled me was the ending. I won't reveal it, but I will say I didn't believe it. Nothing director Sacha Wares or the cast, did--and well--could obscure the play's inability to enliven a tired comment on humanity's inevitable humanity to man and woman.

On a brighter note: Bartlett's much more creative Charles III--a fantasy on what will unfold when the current Prince of Wales finally takes the throne and which preceded Game at the Almeida and then moved to the West End--looks as if it could be on Broadway by the end of the year.