Review by Jack Foley
THEY came to see Friends star, Matthew Perry, but it was probably
his on-stage companion, Hank Azaria, that they left talking about.
Azaria proved to be a commanding and intimidating presence throughout
Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Lindsay Posner's absorbing take
on David Mamet's battle of the sexes.
His predatory misogynist, Bernie, is a truly memorable creation,
whether regaling his close friend, Danny (Perry), with stories
of sexual conquests, or laying into Minnie Driver's uptight Joan
for repelling his advances, the star of films such as Quiz Show
and Godzilla (he has also featured in Friends) is a compulsive
Not that Perry and the rest of the cast are found wanting, far
from it, rather Azaria is given the most to sink his teeth into,
and sets about devouring his character with relish.
Mamet's play, which harks back to 1974, traces the rise and fall
of a brief relationship between Danny (Perry), an assistant office
manager, and Deborah (Kelly Reilly), a commercial illustrator,
which is as much destroyed by their own inadequacies, as it is
by the manipulations of their jealous, insecure, friends (Bernie
Film buffs will recognise it more as About Last Night (the 80s
Brat-packer, starring Rob Lowe and Demi Moore), particularly as
there are large chunks of dialogue that appear practically verbatim
in the film.
But this is a much colder affair, stripped of the need for a
Hollywood ending, which seldom pulls any sexual punches. Fans
of more contemporary theatre will recognise a lot of similar themes
in the work of Neil LaBute, as both playwrights seem to take a
perverse delight in exploring the more ruthless side of sexual
As a result, this is a production which provides the audience
with very few people to root for, rendering it an actors
piece, more than a popular piece of entertainment. You could almost
see the Friends fans scratching their heads in bewilderment.
For while Perrys Danny provides the occasional twitch or
remark to remind you of Chandler, he is a much more cynical character,
someone who thinks he is prepared for the notion of a relationship
until the situation itself rears its ugly head (as Deborah states
at one point, he seems confused by the information his woman is
Sex seems to be the driving force, the bond he and Deborah share.
Theirs is a relationship defined by passion, and their most honest
moment (the point at which they declare their love
for each other) comes at the end of a particularly graphic debate
about sex. Perhaps they would have been more at ease declaring
their lust for each other - for as soon as emotions come into
play, the arguments begin, which can only conclude one way.
It is here that Perry really gets to extend his range, trading
increasingly hurtful insults with Deborah, and striding clear
of his Friends persona.
There are moments when the audience gasped at how just how low
they were both prepared to stoop to hurt each other.
Yet as strong as Perry remains during his scenes with Reilly
(of which there are too few), he seems to struggle alongside Azaria,
who has a tendency to dwarf all around him.
This is Azarias play and his mouthy bragger belies a fragile
sexual confidence borne out of a suggestion that he may have experienced
some form of sexual abuse as a child. He also succeeds in tip-toeing
that fine line between friendship and latent homosexuality with
Perry, which would explain his desire to see Dannys relationship
The final scene between the two friends, while funny, is also
incredibly sad (in both senses), as the two eye up potential future
conquests like meat at a market. For the briefest of moments,
you feel Danny has realised what he may have given up, but this
doesnt make him any less redeemable, while Azarias
sexist continues to breed sympathetic contempt.
Of the female partnership in the play, Reilly shines brightest,
turning in a feisty, sexually explosive turn as Deborah, who represents
the audiences best hope for someone to cheer for. Yet she is discarded
too quickly by the director once her relationship fades, so that
we never really feel any sense of loss or sorrow for her.
Driver, too, is used all too sparingly, as the bitchy control-freak,
not averse to bringing her own sexual philosophy into her classroom.
But then at 80 minutes, it is little wonder that there are some
characters found wanting.
This isnt to say that the production isnt a triumph;
for the talented foursome provides a suitably spiky evening, which
is enhanced by Posners smart direction and Jeremy Herbert's
trendy sets. The speed with which the characters are allowed to
move from scene to scene - sometimes within seconds - is impressive,
while the sense of timing and the delivery of the leads is of
the highest quality.
Just dont go in expecting an easy evenings viewing,
as Perrys newfound friends are a particularly aggressive
Sexual Perversity in Chicago, by David Mamet. Directed by
Lindsay Posner. Starring Matthew Perry (Danny); Hank Azaria (Bernie);
Minnie Driver (Joan), Kelly Reilly (Deborah); Produced by Mark
Rubinstein & Sonia Friedman; Sets by Jeremy Herbert. Booking
until August 2 at The Comedy Theatre, Panton Street, W1. Tel:
020 7369 1731