Until I saw this strangely effective piece from the two-man theatre troupe Ridiculusmus, I imagined I had a rough idea of what gay men do in Bangkok saunas. Tough time, nice time suggests I had it all wrong. What really happens is that they pair off and sit for 70 minutes at opposite ends of a large bath, talking about the films they have seen. Although Martin and Stefan talk dirty - very, very dirty - their relationship is as sexual as Eric and Ernie's was on their double bed.
The script hints that the pair were originally intended to be a bit more mobile. They even dance at one point. But the striking thing about this production (just closed) is the large white bath they share on the all-black stage. Martin and Stefan's torsos poke out luminously and a bit bathetically (pun not originally intended). They speak incessantly of arseholes, but are as disembodied as characters in a Beckett play.
Against this absurdism, the dialogue is naturalistic, the speeches full of errors, misunderstandings, false starts and corrections. David Woods - playing the bald, funny, superior younger man, Stefan - is particularly impressive. You hear people talk as irritatingly as he does, but never on stage. Martin (played by Jon Haynes) is sterner, almost humourless, his sense of superiority more worked at. Both are German and they should be speaking German. Instead, they speak German-accented English. It is ever so slightly 'Allo 'Allo!.
If Pirandello invented six characters in search of an author, Ridiculusmus has come up with two in search of a story. Martin, a lawyer who sells drugs on the side, thinks there is a book in him but he is not sure which book - the one about his childhood, the one about his sex life, or the one about the boyfriend who slaughtered himself on his carpet. Nor is he sure if Stefan, a hack publisher, is the one to write it down. In any case, Stefan refuses to be impressed by his bathmate's tales of horror and in the end decides to write another story altogether - the one about a Ugandan he met who'd had his ears cut off for refusing to kill his parents: "Better structure. Simpler. Fits the formula."
Both men have spent too much time at the cinema analysing the narrative structure of middlebrow movies such as Munich, Brokeback Mountain and Walk the Line. In particular, they have it in for The Constant Gardener, with its "tense music" that makes you think something bad is going to happen. In the film, something eventually does happen. In Tough time, nice time, it pointedly, as in Beckett, does not. When Stefan finally reads from his notebook, he has composed a piece of tawdry pornography. The suggestion is that a promiscuous gay man's life is pretty much like a porn movie: you hang around for the sex, not the plot.
Like water from a bath, the facts of the two men's lives leak out to us, the eavesdropping audience. We only gradually learn of Martin's tragic upbringing, or that Stefan is married. As we work away at the puzzle of who they are, a greater problem emerges: we need to figure out what the play is about.
It certainly skirmishes in the arena of death of affect. It recalls Theodore Zeldin's remarks, in his book An Intimate History of Humanity, about a world in which everyone has the right to speak yet no one is obliged to listen. But is this disassociation, this loneliness, particularly acute in the world of gay promiscuity? The play counters Edmund White's claim in his memoirs that bathhouse encounters open you up to the lives of others. Or is its cause the bombardment of narratives from the media? Or is it a German thing? The two men speak lightly, irreverently of the Holocaust, fondly recalling an American TV film of the same name. Perhaps Germany's broken, unmentionable history robs German citizens of faith in narrative.
A play about a search for a story which then fails to provide one is a high-risk enterprise. When that play is not merely static, but sedentary, the chance that it will bore us is higher still. Tough time, nice time is never boring, however. Disgusting, yes; boring, no. If a few heads fell on chests the night I went, that was because the Pit was itself as hot as a sauna.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times
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