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Just because something’s in English doesn’t mean it can’t get lost in translation—especially if it comes from the U.K. Set in mid-’90s London, Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking doesn’t need subtitles, unlike Ken Loach’s movies or the odd Roddy Doyle novel. But this rondelay of S&M, literary pretension, and crude anti-capitalism does require a limey brand of cynicism—at once gleeful and matter-of-fact—that’s not often found in American theater. Indeed, though Shopping has run continuously in Britain for six years, producers have rarely put it on here; and the Scena Theatre’s new production only sporadically advances the case for doing so.
London has been the hippest, most vibrant city in the world for the last decade—but you’d never know it from Shopping, in which everyone scuttles under a gray depressive cloud worthy of the Edward Heath ’70s. The lights come up on an apartment dressed by set designer Michael Stepowany in a style best termed “neo-crack-den,” where callow youths Robbie (David Snider) and Lulu (Shannon Dunne) are trying to spoon-feed their sugar daddy, Mark (Christopher Henley), some ramen noodles. Being a junkie, he can’t keep them down, and soon Mark (who looks like Michael Palin trying to look like Keith Richards) is off to check himself into rehab.
This pleases Robbie and Lulu not at all, because they now face the grim prospect of actually meeting the rent themselves. (Whatever happened to the dole?) Lulu gets it together enough to interview for a job as a TV home-shopping presenter, but the encounter gets strange when her prospective boss, Brian (Steve Wilhite), weepily relates a story that sounds at first like a noir Oedipus Rex and turns out to be The Lion King.
“Smile,” Brian orders Lulu solemnly, handing her the Disney plate she’ll be hawking. “Look into it. Because this is special. You wouldn’t want to part with this.” Eventually, she strips at his request, and he gives her some Ecstasy to sell for him.
Shopping gives us nothing but scenarios like that one: variations on the squalid commodification of sentiment, with characters that swing from users to used. “It’s not a personal thing—it’s a transaction, OK?” the rehabbed Mark tells Gary (Dan Brick), a teenage hustler he picks up. “The important thing…is that I have something regular that doesn’t mean anything.” Ravenhill isn’t always so obvious and hackneyed, but his repetitive dealing of the same emotion-equals-consumption card makes the play a very stacked deck. He also peppers the script with innumerable mentions of selling, counting, pricing, and consuming—a cleverness that makes the play even more insular and self-ratifying.
And yet Shopping does have a few interesting situations, such as when Henley’s Mark struggles not to fall for Gary, trying to measure out his affections lest they spill over. (He fails, but Gary’s looking for something other than love anyway.) Or when Robbie gets beaten up trying to sell Lulu’s E and she jerks him off because his bruises turn her on, continuously interrupting his story to finish it with her own invented dramas about his heroism until he finally blurts out the truth: that he just pathetically gave the stuff away at a club. “Everyone’s asking, and I’m giving, and everyone’s dancing and smiling,” Robbie says, carried aloft for a moment by this vision of universal generosity—until Lulu clocks the snot out of him.
Otherwise, Ravenhill’s imagination doesn’t rise above the level of straight-to-video. “Is it the shopping that does that?” Gary asks, rubbing Mark’s hard-on with one hand and carrying a Harrods bag in the other like some porno Holly Golightly. Meanwhile, Brian mists up while showing Lulu and Robbie a tape of his son playing cello—this before he gives the pair a week to come up with the £163;3,000 they owe him for the E. (He leaves them with a video of what happened to his last delinquent debtor, involving a blindfold and an electric drill.) Other scenes stay similarly cartoonish. In a work so self-promotionally gritty, it’s odd that the most realistic details come via the occasional dropped trou.
Still, a wittier, snappier Shopping lies somewhere underneath the de-energized version that Scena presents. As the cocky yet fragile Gary, the baby-faced Brick stands out. He gives the character (who was sadistically abused by both his father and his mother’s new lover) a beautifully convincing range—gyrating and baring his midriff like early Madonna to entice Mark, then cowering scared and trembling when his torn rectum starts bleeding again.
“I’m 14,” Gary says at one point, and Brick makes it one of the few lines that hit like a revelation. He’s cagey, too: When he meets Robbie, he puts his head in his hands and raises his eyebrows in delicious mock expectation, instantly sniffing out a rival. It’s a rich and promising performance.
But director Robert McNamara fails to coax equally nimble readings out of the rest of his cast. Brian is admittedly a preposterous thug: Wilhite, though, plays him straight, as a didactic blowhard rather than a charming, flamboyant monster. He speaks and holds himself like a fist that’s been clenched so long it’s lost all circulation. Snider’s pushy Robbie is OK, but Dunne skates on the surface of Lulu, suddenly taking on new aspects instead of showing you how she’s reached those changes. These actors also leave a lot of laugh lines on the table. Ravenhill can write funny, but you’d never guess, on this evidence, how Shopping pleased so many crowds across the drink.
At least Ute Moeller’s costumes nicely capture the sort of studied, brand-name dishevelment (Rip Curl T-shirts and slack-assed cords) that still reigns in London. Sound designer David Crandall furnishes appropriate acid-house music during scene changes. And the production does coalesce during Shopping’s raw penultimate scene, in which Gary finds the kind of implacable hardness he’s been seeking.
But rawness doesn’t equal insight. Ravenhill assumes that we’re all commodified without doing the hard work of proving it, and his script becomes a cynical preachment to the choir about how cynical we’ve all become. Shopping might come at you like a statement play, but it’s nothing more than a lefty in an empty suit. CP