Streetlights can’t cut through the grime on the curtainless kitchen window, so the reddish glow of a space heater is all that initially illuminates the dingy one-room North London flat in Studio Theatre’s Ecstasy. A naked, longhaired male figure sitting on the edge of the bed grunts something about the sex he’s just had, gets a response from his companion he evidently regards as insufficient, slaps her hard on the ass, then walks to the window and wipes his cock on a dishrag. His companion rises, pulls a sweater on over her slip, and mutters something about putting a kettle on.

The ambience is pure Look Back in Anger, but this particular slice-of-life hails from an era some 23 years later, circa 1979, and was envisioned by not-yet-internationally-famous filmmaker Mike Leigh. Those who’ve caught the writer/director’s meandering but sharply observed movies, with their casual dialogue, mostly working-class characters, and kitchen-sink realism will recognize his hand here. Ecstasy’s opening scene might have been lifted directly from Naked, his bleak 1993 comedy about alienated London thirtysomethings. And what follows—a series of idle conversations between a dowdy young alcoholic named Jean (ReNina Hoblitz) and her dim, pub-cruising mates—plays like a prequel to some of the more routine sequences in Leigh’s cheerier pictures, High Hopes and Life Is Sweet.

What’s missing, though, is the social satire that makes Leigh’s film work feel consciously shaped rather than merely observed. Ecstasy, though directed with a sure hand by Serge Seiden (with careful attention to such details as steam rising from a bowl of tomato soup), has not the slightest edge of irony or comic detachment. It takes—and wants us to take—Leigh’s characters at face value. Alas, even they don’t think they’re worth much.

Jean is a particularly sad piece of work—a petrol-station cashier so starved for human kindness that she misses the pre-self-service days when pumping gas and cleaning windshields allowed her to exchange pleasantries with customers. Now, she brings home abusive losers like Roy (Bryan Reisz) and drinks to dull the pain of their slaps.

Her buddies are better adjusted, but no more compelling. Chirpy, chattering Dawn (Madeleine Burke) is pretty much summed up by the garish colors she affects to brighten a dreary existence. Making her first entrance in a chartreuse fur-collared and -cuffed jacket, scarlet scarf, multicolor checked pants, fuchsia socks, and clear plastic high heels, she manages, in a nice bit of character-assassination-by-costume engineered by Edu. Bernardino, to top that outfit on each subsequent entrance. Her asthmatic hubby, Mick (Brian McMonagle) is a conventionally conceived Irish blowhard. Mutual acquaintance Len (Christopher Walker), who’s brought into the picture chiefly so there’ll be a potential love interest for Jean, is as sweetly uncomplicated as the grin that periodically washes across his face.

Nothing much happens in the two and a half hours these folks spend drinking, smoking, brawling, and singing to amuse themselves in the high-ceilinged, classroom-size venue Studio calls Secondstage. Which is not to suggest that things are actively dull, only that the conversation feels aimless enough to have been created in the improvisatory fashion Leigh reportedly favors, with actors developing their characters during weeks of loose rehearsals, and crafting dialogue, plot, and dramatic structure as they go.

One can question whether the gabfest needs to be so belligerently ungrammatical (“Satisfied, am ya?,” “Her is a bugger”) that an element of condescension creeps into the proceedings, but there’s no denying that it mostly sounds plausible. The only obviously written patch is a preposterous 11th-hour speech in which Jean sums up her empty life in a few, short, overly crafted sentences. (An identical—and identically damaging—passage at the end of Secrets and Lies suggests that Leigh doesn’t yet understand that central themes can be left unstated and still be comprehensible to audiences.)

Never mind. The speech isn’t the problem. Nor is the acting, though it’s occasionally overstated (especially in the case of Reisz, who turns Jean’s abusive lover into nothing more than a walking snarl). The problem is that to be successful as a slice of life, Ecstasy pretty much has to eschew drama, which means it’s interesting primarily in a technical sense. The steam rising from the soup, the blood dripping from a split lip, eventually become the evening’s essence, and realizing those effects in close quarters its main accomplishment.

Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s not what most people expect from theater. Nor from movies, as Leigh acknowledges every time he views his characters through a selective, satiric lens. The filmmaker’s sensitivity to issues of class and social mobility make him as ideal an observer of British working-class life today as John Osborne was at the century’s midpoint. But cinéma vérité was never what he was about. He’d have been well advised to skip stage vérité as well.

Theater J’s publicity materials for Two by Two refer to it as the “Richard Rodgers/Martin Charnin musical,” but back when this tale of Noah’s Ark opened on Broadway in 1970, the only name that sold any tickets was Danny Kaye’s.

In fact, a blistering notice in the New York Times (“the show seems so long that at times you feel it ought to be called Three by Three”) would have closed it summarily had the beloved comic not been in attendance. If proof were needed of this, it was provided when the star broke his leg a few months into the run. After two weeks of refunds, the star returned to the show and started running down the other actors with his wheelchair and goosing them with his crutches…and receipts went up. Nobody ever thought the show itself was any good.

Kaye, obviously, is not in attendance at Theater J, and—the strenuous efforts of director Nick Olcott, game leading man Steven W. Shriner, and a pretty talented supporting cast notwithstanding—Two by Two sadly turns out to be every bit as mediocre as its initial reviews said it was. Still, that’s hardly an excuse for drowning whatever charm the material might have possessed with calculatedly wrongheaded production design—calico dresses, blue-jean overalls, heavy wood fencing—that places the show firmly in the American Midwest. If this is an allusion to the horrific Red River flooding last month in the Dakotas, it’s in terrible taste. If not, it’s just dumb…but really dumb, since it makes the show feel like “Hee-Haw Visits Bible School.”

Probably the least musical musical Rodgers ever wrote, Two by Two opens with 10 minutes of dialogue before anyone gets around to singing, and continues with songs that mostly feel so truncated you’d swear the cast was leaving out verses. (A lone exception—the marchlike title number, in which Rodgers tries to be Jerry Herman—compensates by going on too long.)

But then, the composer was worn out by the time he wrote this show, more than a decade after the death of his longtime lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. He managed to give only two melodies that characteristic Sound-of-South-Pacific-and-I lilt: “An Old Man,” unfortunately assigned at Theater J to nonsinger Barbara Rappaport (who is otherwise affecting as Noah’s wife), and “I Do Not Know a Day I Did Not Love You,” persuasively handled by Michael Rodgers as Noah’s rebellious son Japheth. Japheth also makes a case for a number called “Something Somewhere” by belting it in a high, sweet tenor, but the rest of the score amounts to utility music.

Usually reliable set designer Tony Cisek has piled ugly, realistic planking everywhere (which means that turning the farm into an ark requires all kinds of heavy labor and can’t look even remotely graceful), while for the evening’s final miracle, Ayun Fedorcha has come up with the cheesiest rainbow effect I’ve ever seen on a professional stage. This for a show with invisible animals, a flood that happens at intermission, and a God who’s played by a percussive spotlight, for heaven’s sake. Clearly some form of stylization was called for. What could anyone have been thinking?CP

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