To write a play as jaded as Serenading Louie you would, I had suspected, need to be very young. In fact, Lanford Wilson, one of those Nobel prizewinners most of us are vague about, was 33 when it was first performed in 1970, the same age as the four characters whose marriages it mercilessly flails. In his introduction to a new edition, he admits, however, that the play was composed from fragments of dialogue he had eavesdropped during his first jobs in ad agencies. As a child of a divorce, how Wilson must have relished hearing his every bitter prejudice about marriage confirmed!
The play's puzzling title is taken from an old Yale song briefly sung by the quartet (graduates of the inferior Chicago Northwestern); its key line is: "We are poor little lambs who have lost our way." In consequence of the randomness with which it was written, plotting is not its strong point. It takes time for us to learn, and even longer to care, that Alex, the crusading lawyer contemplating a political career, has fallen in love with a pert young student - and it is a relief to be let in on this, as his hatred for his loyal if talkative wife Gabrielle has hitherto appeared unearned. His college friend Carl, in contrast, is deeply in love with his wife, Mary (Geraldine Somerville), who is having an affair. When, in the final ten minutes, the plot gathers itself and hurtles towards a tragic conclusion, it becomes ridiculous. It is a shame, for by then Serenading Louie has successfully explored a new form, something nearer encounter therapy.
It befalls Charlotte Emmerson as Gabby to kickstart proceedings and she wobbles a little in a distracted monologue whose climax is her spotting a drunken fly on the windowsill. The fly is in the same state of spiritual lassitude as Gabby and her friends. Nothing flies for anyone. Love, says Alex (played by Jason Butler Harner, very uncomfortable in his own skin, or at least his suit), "is only a neurosis everyone agrees to have together". Carl (Jason O'Mara) considers it unlikely that his teenage hunch that God exists is correct. Politics, both men agree, is a fix. Alex complains that even sex no longer works for him; the two couples see Deep Throat and hate it. Only nostalgia and the booze flow easily. When Carl was 12, he recalls, the whole country prayed for a little girl who had fallen down a well. Such a feat of collective focus would never happen now (except it did, Carl forgets, for the moon landing in 1969).
The couples, in an Ayckbourn-style device, live in identical Chicago apartments. This necessitates only the one set, and halfway through Act II the characters begin to occupy the same space and time, as if haunting one another's lives. The play has become a single conversation about why the American dream ain't all it is cracked up to be. The drunken or dope-fuelled whining sometimes grates but the acting, although uneven, finds sincerity and power in Wilson's dialogue. Serenading Louie is an emotional snapshot, but the director, Simon Curtis, makes it a sharp portrait.
As a night out, Serenading Louie's narcissistic dilemmas certainly beat the pseudo-profound moral certainties offered by the octogenarian director Peter Brook in 11 and 12, a play by Marie-Hélène Estienne, showing at the Barbican. In different hands, this true fable of Africans bashing each other up over an abstruse dispute about whether a Muslim prayer should be recited 11 or 12 times might make superb black comedy. Here, however, the Sufi leader who converts from Elevenism to Twelvism, Tierno Bokar (Makram J Khoury, so pious you want to belt him) is treated with the respect that the theatrical guru Brook no doubt believes due himself. The real villains, naturally, are a succession of bemused French governors.
Brook is convinced that theatre can be both a religious and a dramatic experience. This is neither. You'd have to be 84 and living in Paris to get away with it.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times.
“Serenading Louie" is at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2, until 27 March. “11 and 12" is at the Barbican, London EC2, until 27 February, and then touring.