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Theater Review: Greta Gerwig Tries to Keep The Village Bike on the Road

Greta Gerwig and Scott Shepherd in The Village Bike.

It’s no spoiler to report that the final stage direction of Penelope Skinner’s play The Village Bike, brought over from London by MCC Theater and starring Greta Gerwig, is “Mike wanks.” The whole thing’s about wanking: pleasure and self-pleasure. It starts, hilariously, with a young couple negotiating sex during the first days of the wife’s pregnancy, which has turned Becky ravenous but left John repelled. (He says he’s afraid of killing the baby.) Out comes the collection of porn DVDs, stored in a box marked as wedding crockery; this does not solve the problem. It does, however, get us merrily through the next few scenes, which riff on the ridiculous set-ups and dim double entendres of the genre. To Becky, everything looks like a hookup about to happen. The plumber who arrives to fix the couple’s clanking pipes keeps using the word moist. And the man who sells Becky a bike is named Oliver Hardcastle.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with the subject at hand, the play can’t keep this up. Fairly quickly, it is goes through changes that themselves seem to be hormonal. It’s a satire of porn! It’s an English village comedy of manners! It’s actual porn! It’s an indictment of double-standard sexuality! It’s an example of double-standard sexuality! By the end you hate everyone and want to wash your hands.

Not that the young playwright, who won a clutch of awards for The Village Bike in England, is being gratuitous. (Well, the title is gratuitous; it’s slang for local slut, because everybody rides it.) Admirably, Skinner is addressing a difficult theme head on, often with wit and verbal authenticity. What options, after all, does society give a pregnant woman — a woman who’s also, to up the ante, a schoolteacher — when her sexual needs are not being met? But in order to externalize the drama, Skinner resorts to the kind of marionette-string plotting that makes no character sense. John isn’t just sexually uninterested but absurdly oblivious and finally hostile. Becky transforms within the space of a few scenes from exurban wifey to libidinal werewolf. Her eventual viciousness toward John and her pathetic begging for Mr. Hardcastle are somewhat interesting as twists, but utterly unconvincing as a real story.

Not every story has to be real, of course, and the director Sam Gold is usually adept at taking audiences along for the ride in plays that lack the usual handrails. Too bad his methods are not working here; the play is too wild even for the heightened naturalism he starts us with as a gateway drug. This makes the performances, which are all quite good line-by-line, mostly unworkable over the course of the two hour-long acts. Gerwig, onstage almost the whole time, barely dressed, exemplifies both extremes. She’s surprisingly natural in her first major theater outing and unsurprisingly funny; she has the character down. That, alas, is the problem.

The Village Bike is at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through June 28.

Photo: null/Matthew Murphy