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Women Push the Envelope, in Different Ways

Category: Art & Culture,Theater

LONDON — There’s no limit to the fractiousness on view in “Holy __,” the new play bearing the challenging, unprintable title with which the Kiln Theater in Northwest London opened its doors this week.

London theater devotees will know the site along Kilburn High Road as the former home of the Tricycle Theater, the enterprising entity that for several decades has produced some of the most provocative work around — not least in the realm of political engagement. (Their epic “The Great Game: Afghanistan” was seen Off Broadway in 2010).

After closing for a two-year refurbishment and upgrade costing roughly $10 million, the theater is back in business with an expanded cafe and restaurant and a larger, more comfortable auditorium that seats nearly 300. It also has a new name. So far, so good, you might think — except that the anger coursing through Alexis Zegerman’s lively if overheated play has been preceded by considerable rancor directed at the rebranding of the theater.

The debate, borne out in both the local newspapers and the occasional street protest, has centered on the suitability of calling the time-honored “Trike,” as the Tricycle was known within the business, by a seemingly random name, the Kiln. So what if the word subsumes within itself the defining letters of Kilburn and refers to a furnace that can speak, by extension, to any artistic crucible? That reasoning was not enough for some.

“By rebranding the theater, Indhu Rubasingham seems to be canceling out its past,” Michael Billington wrote in The Guardian, referring to the theater’s artistic director, even as others proffered the sensible riposte that a new name also signals a new way forward. For the record, the theater’s entrance displays a corrective and clearly visible subtitle of sorts — “Tricycle transformed” — and it could well be argued that a theater seen to have grown in stature to this degree surely deserves a name that doesn’t call to mind a child’s toy. The space is now grown up in every way.

That maturity is more than can necessarily be said of the two couples whose gathering discontent fuels a play from Ms. Zegerman that brings to immediate mind Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning play “God of Carnage” and nods in passing to such other titles as “The Glass Menagerie” and Mike Leigh’s “Two Thousand Years” along the way. (Ms. Zegerman appeared in Mr. Leigh’s play at the National Theater in 2005, while the Tennessee Williams classic finds an echo in the grim fate here of a unicorn — not, on this occasion, a glass figurine but a stuffed animal.)

As in Ms. Reza’s play, Ms. Zegerman sets two ostensibly genial middle-class couples on a collision course abetted by the behavior of their (unseen) children, whose actions bring out the withheld tantrums of four adults for whom civility turns out to be paper-thin. Ms. Zegerman concludes the play with an open question as to what one of these characters will “tell the children” — the unspoken assumption lingering in the toxic air that childishness has nothing to do with age.

Ms. Zegerman goes well beyond Ms. Reza in making a highly contemporary and combustible mix of race and religion. Simone (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) is a nonobservant Jew who will do anything to get her 4-year-old daughter, Milly, a free place in the local Church of England school — even if it means feigning Anglicanism. And Ms. Myer-Bennett, an ever-welcome presence in new plays and classics alike, adroitly shows what happens when parental anxiety is pushed past the limit.

“Your secret’s safe with us,” Simone’s close friend Juliet (Claire Goose), a Christian, says during the calm before the name-calling storm. Meanwhile, their husbands extend and expand upon a closeness of their own that is rent asunder in a second act that devolves into one bitter and vitriol-driven face-off after another.

Juliet’s husband, Nick (Daon Broni), is black and does not believe Simone’s secular-minded husband, Sam (Daniel Lapaine), when he tells Nick that he refuses to see the world in terms of color. (Nick, for the record, uses the phrase that gives the play its title once in each act — first as an exclamation, later as a provocation.)

From there, it’s not long before the discourse disintegrates into name-calling and condescension: “Educate me, Sidney Poitier,” Sam snaps at Nick as the two men career toward an impasse that may never be bridged: Even the most seemingly enlightened can succumb to enmity.

Ms. Rubasingham, the director, skilfully maps out the modes of attack and retreat that are deployed across an evening that could use more authorial modulation if this dissection of a riven urban landscape is to acquire its full potential. As it is, “Holy __” registers as a cautionary tale about the faultlines on which so many lives are balanced these days. People coexist — until they don’t.

That the troubles often come from within would seem to be one point of Clare Barron’s “Dance Nation,” the much-lauded American play that has arrived in a new production at the Almeida Theater in North London as part of an impromptu London season of American work encompassing Broadway’s Tony-winning “The Humans” on the one hand and the Off Broadway musical “Heathers” on the other.

The unexpected conceit of Ms. Barron’s play is to cast adults to play 13-year-olds: “Think of it as a ghost play,” Ms. Barron writes in the introduction to the published script, before warning against cuteness of any kind in performance.

The cast on view under the direction of Bijan Sheibani commendably refuses to succumb to the twee but, as of opening night at least, had not entirely mastered the art of playing teenagers without in some way standing outside the parts. More playing time may foster a sense that these fine actresses are all fully inhabiting their roles rather than merely commenting on them.

That said, Ms. Barron extends the feisty terrain of Ms. Zegerman’s title into a verbal landscape that may be difficult to quote but remains alive to the onset of puberty and of a body that is not yet entirely in sync with the mind. You’ll find traces of “A Chorus Line” near the outset, not to mention the sort of cringe-making reality TV shows that seem to have turned everything into a competition. These girl-women speak of wanting to “dance away” the woes of the world but need only glance in the direction of “Holy __” to discover that what lies in wait may not be much of an improvement.

Holy __. Directed by Indhu Rubasingham. Kiln Theater, through Oct. 6.

Dance Nation. Directed by Bijan Sheibani. Almeida Theater, through Oct. 6.

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