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On London Stage, Absurdity and Terrorism Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

That’s not to say that Mr. Calderón or his able director, Sam Pritchard, are in any way flippant or glib about one of the more continually pressing issues of our time. But “B” largely works by stealth and by a sidelong, off-kilter sense of humor. A more feral approach to the same subject can and surely will have its say another day.


Joe Bannister, left, as Jim, and Ruby Bentall as Ramona in “Ramona Tells Jim,” at the Bush Theater.

Samuel Taylor

Explosions of a different sort animate the triangular landscape of “Ramona Tells Jim,” which is running at the smaller Bush Theater auditorium through Oct. 21. The script from the actress-turned-playwright Sophie Wu casts the English actor Joe Bannister as a Scotsman, Jim, who has a dalliance with one teenager, Ramona (Ruby Bentall), only in later life to father a child by a second, Pocahontas (Amy Lennox), who is all of 19. And, yes, that is her character’s real name.

Will Pocahontas readily tolerate the lingering presence in Jim’s affections of his former lover, Ramona? The question is complicated by a troubling plot point — not to be revealed here — that sets Jim on a collision course between present and past that results in the long-absent Ramona’s paying Jim a visit some 15 years after they first danced to Enya together on a Scottish beach.

Stories of onetime romances returning perhaps to seek another day abound onstage: the National Theater’s current revival of the Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical “Follies” mines that precise topic to wounding effect. And as her play flits between 1998 and 2013, Ms. Wu forces the sort of conversation across the years that we have with ourselves, and with one another, at our peril.

If “Ramona Tells Jim” sometimes loses its way, that has more to do with the wearing, staccato-style speech of the young Jim and Ramona, who give off the air of two woodpeckers embroiled in an uneasy mating dance. Ms. Bentall’s saucer-eyed Ramona, in particular, is never quite as charming as Jim, or the audience, is clearly meant to find her; the director, Mel Hillyard, might have muted all three performances just a touch for so enclosed a space.

That said, Ms. Lennox, an alumna of the London versions of such musicals as “Lazarus” and “Kinky Boots,” sustains an impressively jagged quality as Pocahontas that allows anger and adoration to conjoin. The excellent Mr. Bannister makes Jim a poignant man-child who may be able to deliver a seal bark on cue but is by no means as confident when it comes to the slithery byways of the heart.


Julian Clary, left, as Michael and James Nelson-Joyce as Tim in “Le Grand Mort” at Trafalgar Studios.

Scott Rylander

A more sinister erotic gavotte — that’s to say, one that couples come-ons with the occasional brandishing of knives — can be found in the intimate downstairs space of Trafalgar Studios, where Stephen Clark’s “Le Grand Mort” is running through Oct. 28. (As with “B” and “Ramona Tells Jim,” the play is told straight through, with no intermission.)

Are we watching the finished product that everyone intended? That is difficult to say, given that Mr. Clark, who died last October at 55, has a diverse list of credits that includes the 2010 West End musical version of “Love Story,” which he co-wrote with the composer Howard Goodall.

One wonders, then, what nips and tucks the playwright might have made to an overextended two-hander that conceals whatever provocations it may genuinely possess beneath a lot of rhetorical bluff and bluster. The first third or so finds the play’s main attraction, the comedian Julian Clary, in a rare acting role, cooking up a tasty-smelling Italian meal while musing aloud on all manner of topics — sex, death and necrophilia heading the list. Among the many people floated for consideration are Princess Diana, Rasputin and Jesus Christ.

Playing a failed architect named Michael with an apparent gift for pickups, Mr. Clary soon leaves off pondering the sexual suggestiveness of the Passion to be joined by his dinner guest, Tim (James Nelson-Joyce). Scarcely have the two men ceased rehashing the flirtatious lunchtime encounter in a pub that led to this, um, cosier invite before Tim sheds his clothes like some sort of human incarnation of Michelangelo’s David. (In fact, it’s Leonardo and not his Renaissance colleague who is specifically referenced in Justin Nardella’s gleaming set, Michael’s stainless steel kitchen the last word in spotlessness.)

As directed by Christopher Renshaw, a 1996 Tony nominee for “The King and I,” the verbal byplay between the men gives way to a physical entanglement inhabiting that dangerous netherworld — hinted at in the play’s title — where libido gives way to potential loss of life. That the result fails to generate much charge is due in part to the galloping excesses of the writing and to one’s impression that neither actor seems entirely comfortable with the tonal changes required.

As the monologuist on view at the start, Michael is drawn to language that comes in threes: “defiled, desecrated, devoured,” to cite but one example, or, with reference to the puttanesca sauce he is busy tasting, “oh yes yes yes.” I admit to losing patience with “Le Grand Mort” well before its apparent move toward grand guignol. On the other hand, were Mr. Clary to invite anyone I know to dinner, I’d encourage them to say yes.

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