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Azaria rises to Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago



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 scene-stealer.

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 and Joan).

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 politics.

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 Perry’s 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 giving him).

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 Azaria’s 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 Danny’s relationship end.

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 doesn’t make him any less redeemable, while Azaria’s 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 isn’t to say that the production isn’t a triumph; for the talented foursome provides a suitably spiky evening, which is enhanced by Posner’s 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 don’t go in expecting an easy evening’s viewing, as Perry’s newfound friends are a particularly aggressive bunch indeed.

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

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