Michael Coveney - Far from friends

Theatre - Two men who can't see what's staring them in the face. By Michael Coveney

Some Girl(s

The prolific and brilliant dramatist and film-maker Neil LaBute has an odd name, so I guess he's allowed an odd title. Some Girls could sound like an old-fashioned pop song, whereas Some Girl(s) looks like a hip challenge to your power(s) of detecting the same pattern(s) in one guy's history of seduction(s).

In fact, David Schwimmer, who played the goofy palae-ontologist Ross Geller in Friends, merely meets four former girlfriends in different hotel rooms that look the same whether he's in Seattle, Chicago, Boston or Los Angeles. He is about to marry a 22-year-old student nurse and wants to achieve "closure".

In a plural emotional sense, this unnamed Man - a writer who has churned out journalism on these relationships ("It's funny how your mind works when Esquire magazine comes calling") - may not know his "s" from his elbow. He seems to be a dork, a numskull, a bozo. And to coin a tongue-twister: in short scene(s) with some girl(s), he's some shit(s).

Three years ago in What the Night Is For - a critically underrated play by another, less fashionable American dramatist, Michael Weller - Gillian Anderson from The X Files played a character who opened one of her ex-files by meeting a former lover in an anonymous hotel. Both of them were married to other people and had met up, after ten years, through the internet. That play, like this, had four scenes of 20-odd minutes each, but the bedroom encounter had a momentum, sexiness, punch and resolution that Some Girl(s) lacks. LaBute's published script suggests that the Man was wired up all the time, recording more source material. David Grindley's deft but finally bloodless production deletes this detail: Schwimmer's character steps away from his past and tells the fiancee, on the telephone, that he will love her always. For "always", read "maybe for a while".

In his first film, the dark and funny In the Company of Men (1997), LaBute showed two men in a nameless city seducing and hurting a vulnerable deaf woman; he summed it up as: "Boys meet girl, boys crush girl, boys giggle." There is nothing so nasty in Some Girl(s), and LaBute is not out to kick against our politically correct received opinions as he was in his four hair-raising stage plays that have been presented at the Almeida Theatre in Islington in the past five years.

LaBute was until recently a practising Mormon, and he has used his work, I guess, to challenge his own beliefs. After Bash (2000), which included gut-wrenching monologues of murder, rape and queer-bashing, he was "dis-fellowshipped" by his Church. Earlier this year, he resigned altogether. In The Mercy Seat (2002), a married man in New York plans to use the 9/11 disaster as an escape route to another life with his lover; under cover of being one of the 3,000 victims in the twin towers, he could disappear and start again. LaBute does that kind of testing moral shock very well. And with Some Girl(s), the guilt of the man is the moral lining to the situation in his Shape of Things (2001), where a female artist betrays the trust of love in a series of deadly, exploitative gambits.

The trouble with the new play is that the energy of each scene is independent of the others. Schwimmer, who is likeable, modest and technically efficient on stage, is sucked back each time into merely witnessing his own futile gestures of apology, atonement or reparation. Two of the encounters, we assume, will end in sexual activity: the first, for old time's sake, a "blow-back" before he goes; the second a perfunctory deed of revenge.

Luckily, the girls are all good and angry. Catherine Tate manages a fiery, dis-appointed disdain as the dumped high-school sweetheart. Sara Powell is all mouth and movement, lithe and strapping, as a "free love" totem of a lost paradise. Lesley Manville storms on as an older woman whose husband is downstairs in his car while they rekindle - or rather, she does - their savage adultery. And Saffron Burrows, bending like a willow in the wind of her own seething sarcasm, hits for six, and out of the ground, the man's defence of "meaning well". "Oppenheimer meant well," she screams. "Pol Pot meant well."

LaBute gets down and dirty, up close and personal. Brian Friel, Ireland's greatest living dramatist, prefers the long shot in The Home Place, his marvellous new play of shifting relationships in the build-up to the land reforms on a country house estate in mythical Bally-beg (Friel's usual location) in 1878. Tom Courtenay plays a decent but doomed Anglo-Irish landowner with hypnotic, marionettish fervour. Not just the trees and the frock coats are Chekhovian in Adrian Noble's poetic production. Courtenay is a compelling amalgam of Uncle Vanya and Gayev from The Cherry Orchard: a disappointed relic who can't see the popular will for the private wood.

Some Girl(s) is booking now on 0870 890 1105 until 13 August. The Home Place is booking on 0870 060 6637 until 27 August

Michael Portillo is away

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