Greta Gerwig and Scott Shepherd in THE VILLAGE BIKE (photo by Matthew Murphy)
Penelope Skinner's The Village Bike was termed "a provocative and darkly comic look at fantasy and romance" when it was produced in 2011 at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. The play enjoyed a sold-out, extended run, winning the author the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright. The Village Bike is now resident at the Lortel, under the auspices of MCC Theater. This American version, albeit with heavy English accents, is not nearly so provocative and dangerous -- or funny -- as it must have been at the Royal Court.
Personable young Brit couple are getting ready for bed in a cottage they are renovating in a quaint village. Small talk includes discussion of a second-hand bicycle that English teacher Becky (Greta Gerwig) intends to buy so that she can exercise during her first trimester, despite misgivings by husband John (Jason Butler Harner). They talk about the bicycle, the village, and their troublesome plumbing. Yes, he is "neglecting the pipes." She talks about how she used to watch "boys on their bikes just shooting down the road," but she could never "let go." During this, she puts on a new sexy nightgown, but he -- busily reading a book on what they can expect now that Becky is pregnant -- evades her desires. "I've got to make a lasagna tomorrow," he explains. "From scratch."
After a half-scene worth of loaded comments -- is this talk suggestive? -- Becky pulls out some porn films to entice her husband, although he rolls over asleep. We hear the porn soundtrack, which will become aural punctuation throughout the play. We then watch as the pregnant wife flirts with two locals. One is, indeed, a plumber. ("You got sweaty pipes. Nice and tight for now, but I'll have to pop back.") The other is a village bad boy, who enters carrying the bicycle he is selling and wearing re-enactment garb with what he explains are uncomfortably "restrictive britches." "Isn't she gorgeous?" the men converse. "Hardly been ridden." But are they talking about Becky, or the bicycle, or both?
There are two-plus hours of this. The play lurches from comedy to sex to violence to comedy in bumpy and never-involving fashion. (Some playgoers might consider it "Thomas Bradshaw with clothes on," although Village Bike is considerably more palatable than Intimacy or Burning.) Does something get lost in the translation from English to -- well, English? Very possibly. "The village bike" is readily recognizable slang, for British audiences, signifying "the village slut." As in, everyone in town gets a ride. This knowledge would presumably change the way audiences at the Lortel respond to the play, early on. But that in itself wouldn't help much, I imagine. Becky indulges in dangerous, violent and risky (for the baby) behavior. At no point, though, do we seem to care. Perhaps that's the playwright's aim, but even so. We don't care, we don't laugh, we aren't engaged.
The six-person cast is headed by Gerwig, whom all the publicity tells us is the star and co-author of Frances Ha. Not having seen Frances Ha--a 2012 film by Noah Baumbach--that is not much help. It turns out that she does an admirable job here, despite what she is given to do, and we'll gladly see her when next she takes the stage. (Gerwig was a late replacement for the previously announced Maggie Gyllenhaal.)
Staging the play is the always interesting Sam Gold, who has been known to work wonders when he has wonderful material -- but this is not the present case. Laura Jellinek's set is also worth mentioning. The first act takes place in Becky and John's cottage. The second act set incorporates three distinct houses simultaneously, with the rooms intermixed. It is an impressive use of space, although not quite successful in execution. Although let it be said, the intermission -- with something of a fifteen-minute ballet by stagehands -- is almost more engaging than some of the play.
The Village Bike, by Penelope Skinner, opened June 10, 2014 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.