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The Village Bike

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Greta Gerwig and Scott Shepherd
Photo by Matthew Murphy

The clang of a pipe, the zing of a chain spinning too fast, the unmistakable moaning from a pornographic video approaching its, uh, climax. The sounds of love, and of acceptance, tolerance, and desperation, come in many forms in The Village Bike, the play by British playwright Penelope Skinner that is having its New York premiere at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in an MCC Theater production. And these sounds, like the physical and psychological feelings that accompany them take some acclimation. It's tough to understand what they mean and why they ring so darkly when you're first exposed to them. And, at least here, why they're important in the first place.

Skinner presents a superficial answer to that last concern, of course. Becky (Greta Gerwig) is in the opening months of her first pregnancy, and increasingly fretting that her husband, John (Jason Butler Harner), no longer wants to make love to her. No amount of sex talk between the small-town English couple, no firing up an X-rated video clip, and no flaunting an immodest negligee can convince him that intimate time with his expecting wife is more important than saving the planet or less important than not shopping at Tesco, all of which leaves Becky worrying about how unwanted she really is.

The wrinkle is that no other man sees her that way. The plumber she's hired to repair a leaky pipe, Mike (Max Baker), can't stop stealing glances at her. And the man from whom she's bought a used bike to give her something to do and some way to travel and exercise during her pregnancy, Oliver (Scott Shepherd), is even more interested: He's younger than Mike, prone to strutting about in the tight costume he wears for the play he's performing, and dropping plenty of hints about what he wants and is willing to do, provided his wife doesn't have to hear about it. But the threat of a spouse finding out isn't enough to stop him and, before long, it's not enough to stop Becky.

It is, however, enough to stop the production. None of the actors, who also include Cara Seymour as Becky's friend, Jenny, and Lucy Owen as Oliver's no-nonsense wife, is ever more comfortable than in the early scenes of the first act, which both Skinner and director Sam Gold have dressed up with a tart sauciness that could have come straight out of Three's Company. (Oops, sorry: Man About the House.) The numerous loaded exchanges between Becky and the various men who orbit her with varying degrees of amorous intention percolate with comedic verve that highlights the underlying absurdity of the sex-farce situations through which they're all wading.

But once the game is on and there's no reason left for anyone to be subtle, The Village Bike takes a protracted ride through particularly tired territory. The plot elements that consume the action after the first 45 minutes or so are almost satirically pedestrian: Skinner may understandably not want to maintain a full romp for nearly two and a half hours, but if she wants to get serious, there are better ways than dwelling on surface-level explorations of the processes required to keep the affair from this wife or that husband, whether one person is more interested than the other in continuing the tryst, or musing on the wreckage one errant cell-phone camera is capable of inflicting.

For this switch to work, the foundation must be laid at the beginning, and it's not—there's no domestic tranquility to upend, as all of these lives are already in flux, and Skinner satisfies herself with broadly painted neuroses rather than better-rounded characters who could legitimately locate the funniness and the frailty inherent in any romance. Gold, who when paired with the right script is better than anyone at limning dialogue for multiple levels of nuance, can't work his usual magic with so little raw material. Even Becky is barely defined outside of the fields of vision of the men around her, leaving no way for her to become the sympathetic center of a love tangle later on.

A significant part of the problem there is Gerwig, who's best known for writing and starring in the film Frances Ha but doesn't possess the stage acting chops required to make something of Becky. Gerwig zips through the play with a perpetually bemused look plastered across her face, and speaking in a breathy, high-pitched monotone that sounds calculated to register as flighty uncertainty but that lacks discernible ties to genuine emotion. Gerwig is pretty enough to believably turn three men's heads, but projects no charisma or vivacity to explain why anyone would find her enticing—from the start, Becky is clingy, needy, and empty, and has no more a place to be than she does a place to go.

Everyone else gives a richer portrayal, but most of them have too little to work with for their efforts to register for long. Closest is Seymour, who conveys a heartbreaking betrayed abandonment as masked by an unduly perky exterior—it's clear that Jenny is trying too hard to fit in with people she doesn't naturally gravitate to. Harner finds a compelling but warm exhaustion in John that helps explain why his change in attitude toward Becky, but his angrier scenes are less persuasive. Shepherd is spot-on as the love-'em-and-leave-'em Oliver, and Baker has polished his one-note lecher to a dazzling sheen.

None of it, however, is enough to heat up the rest of the play, which, like Becky, likes the idea of love more than the genuine article. If the message is, as it seems to be, that the reason it's so easy to settle for two-dimensional relationships is because there's rarely any other kind to be found, Skinner has stumbled into it by crafting a play that's bereft of exactly the depth it laments the absence of. At least it acknowledges that love is, sometimes, a laughing matter, but that's not much comfort when the most worthwhile parts of The Village Bike stops the instant the laughs do.

The Village Bike
Through June 28
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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