Most American probably wouldn’t know that the very British title of Penelope Skinner’s The Village Bike does not refer to weekend athletics in the country to keep in shape but to a woman of loose morals, one who will sleep with anyone. This is not an accurate description of this provocative new import from London’s Royal Court, the New York stage debut of both the author Skinner and film star Greta Gerwig in a very commanding performance. Director Sam Gold who is building a fine resumé staging new plays by cutting edge playwrights like Annie Baker, Will Eno, Lisa Kron and Theresa Rebeck has piloted an engrossing production of a play that will make you think, as well as compare British and American attitudes about relations between men and women as well as sexuality as it is perceived today.
Schoolteacher Becky and her TV commercial director husband John have moved to the country one very hot English summer. Becky is pregnant but not yet showing. However, she seems to be going through other changes as well. According to her husband, Becky is experiencing “hormonal changes that are more dramatic than at any other time” in a woman’s life including menopause. Whatever the reasons, Becky’s libido is raging. Her problem: her husband won’t touch her while she is pregnant as he thinks it will hurt the baby and wants to avoid sex for several months. Her needs apparently count for nothing. At the same time, Becky has developed a craving for a bike in order to stay fit and to help fill up the time during her summer vacation away from her students – possibly to get away from her arid marriage.
Having answered an ad from a local resident who is selling his wife’s bike, she meets the seller with the suggestive name of Oliver Hardcastle, who at the time is dressed in the tight 18th century clothes of a highwayman for a village pageant. Dubbed “eccentric” and “odd” by her neighbors which may simply mean he doesn’t play by the rules, Oliver makes it clear that he would like to see more of her soon. Rejected again and again by her husband, Becky takes Oliver up on his offer while his wife is away for a month. Oliver sets the ground rules that it must end when his wife returns and Becky insists that a woman can have an affair without getting emotionally involved. However, Oliver unleashes the sexuality that Becky’s marriage has not unlocked in her and she becomes head over heels obsessed with him.
The play’s two acts are very different in style, tone and content. The first act plays like a domestic comedy-drama of a marriage in crisis. It is to the author’s credit that everything that is said seems to take on a sexual overtone even the most innocent remarks, from John’s obsession with (organic) meat to their “sweaty pipes” (i.e. the knocking noise in their decaying plumbing) to Becky’s invite to the plumber to come up to check the bedroom, so that we hear what Becky is feeling. The second act is about sexual obsession as we watch Becky on a downward spiral as she becomes more and more fixated on sex with Oliver. It also becomes clear that John has not been sensitive to Becky’s needs and their sexual relations have been unsatisfactory: he has needed porn to get in the mood and has refused to understand when Becky has not felt like sex or has had to fake orgasms. Oliver, at first very solicitous of Becky’s feelings, proves that he is just as self-involved when he is ready to get rid of her. He has gotten what he wants, too bad for her. The play’s ending suggests that things will not bode well for this cast of characters.
As he has become known for, Gold has made each character a very real person but one with a specific and unique set of characteristics. Gerwig, who is making her New York stage debut, takes to the boards like one to the manner born. Aside from her fetching figure in her very short outfits, she always takes center stage in every scene. Becky’s downward slide as things begin to get out of control is completely convincing and very well delineated. We feel her frustration and later desperation as her passions are unlocked but she has no appropriate outlet for them. As her undersexed husband, John Butler Harner is ironically and thoroughly dense as to what is happening to his wife as well as his own inadequacies. Scott Shepherd, as Becky’s seducer, is both sexy and callous, a heartless lover who in the end is interested mostly in his own pleasures. Theatergoers will recall his entirely different performance as one of the readers of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in Elevator Repair Service’s production of Gatz.
Lucy Owen as Oliver’s self-assured wife Alice, seen late in the late in the play, has a very forceful and dramatic scene in which we come to understand this couple’s relationship. Cara Seymour is amusing as a neighbor overwhelmed with her two children who is as dense at reading clues as is Becky’s husband. Max Baker is fine as the lonely, middle-aged plumber who comes to Becky’s rescue in more ways than one. All of the actors successfully sport various British accents without a single lapse, credited to dialect coach Kate Wilson.
Laura Jellinek’s clever scenic design turns the stage of the Lortel into several homes, two simultaneously overlapping in the second act, partly by reusing set pieces in different places. The costumes by Clint Ramos, for both states of dress and undress, look like they would be chosen by these characters. Mark Barton’s lighting signifies different times of the day for the play’s 18 short scenes. Daniel Kluger’s music reflects Becky’s changing moods as the play continues on its downward spiral. Darrel Maloney’s projections fill us in on moments that would be difficult to stage.
The Village Bike introduces New York to two new voices in the theater: British playwright Penelope Skinner who reputed writes about women’s roles in contemporary society and American film star Greta Gerwig, a triple threat as actress, writer, director, who proves that she is entirely at home on the stage. A very visceral play, The Village Bike is not for prudes; on the other hand, it should open a conversation that is long overdue in our theater concerning men and women’s sexuality as it is understood today.
The Village Bike (through July 13, 2014)
MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.mcctheater.org
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission