I took more pleasure in telling people I was going to a play called Shopping and Fucking than I did from the play itself. But Planet Earth Theatre's production of this persuasively creepy little drama -- which was a huge hit in London's West End several years ago -- isn't so easily dismissed. Its energetic young cast members act their hearts out and, with the assistance of director Ron May, several of them turn in striking performances. Despite its excesses, British playwright Mark Ravenhill's bright, edgy script plays like an Interstate crackup: It's hard to look at, but harder still to look away from.
It's also hugely offensive, in the bleak, postpunk manner of those naughty 1990s West End shows. Shopping and Fucking concerns the dismal life of Lulu and her bisexual boyfriend Robbie, who are both in thrall to a hapless heroin addict named Mark. When Mark leaves for a stint in rehab, Lulu auditions for a job with a home-shopping network. Brian, the fellow who interviews her, asks her to remove her blouse, then offers her a job selling Ecstasy. After Robbie gets loaded and gives the drugs away, he and Lulu go to work as phone-sex operators to earn enough to pay Brian back. Meantime, Mark (who's been booted out of rehab for having sex with a fellow patient) hooks up with Gary, a 14-year-old prostitute who likes to be sodomized with knives.
There's more, most of which amounts to a lot of attention-grabbing indecencies: Actors vomit blood; perform angry sex acts; beat one another up. These shocking moments seem designed to make a name for the playwright; they lack a necessary point of view, and provide no comment on the human condition, none of the thought-provoking insight that serious drama demands. There isn't any reason why we need to watch one fellow performing analingus on a 14-year-old; no reason to stage all this puking and bleeding.
But whenever the playwright runs out of words, that's exactly what happens: We're treated to another unnecessary gross-out, another scene dripping with blood or semen. The blood flows so freely -- from the first scene to the last -- that the actors' hands and mouths are stained with it throughout; the entire cast looks like they've just finished a box of cherry Popsicles.
A lot of this gore is the purview of director May, who brings to the proceedings an odd mix of brilliant staging and amateurish pacing. He implements body language well: His actors often crouch over the action at hand or hunker in a corner while others perform, and his use of arms and torsos for emphasis is interesting. But the labor that went into these choices is always a little too studied, and the result -- as enacted by his energetic young cast -- is that of ordinary people showing off.
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May might not have found the pacing needed to remedy the sluggish first act, but he has assembled players who do justice to Ravenhill's sharp dialogue and angst-driven story. Greg London is especially effective as Brian, an oily sleazeball who's obsessed with money and Disney's The Lion King. And Jason J. Grunner maintains a perfect Cockney accent and thuggish stance as Gary, the frightening boy-child whose oft-declared sexual fantasy made me want to hide under my seat until the show was over.
If there's little question whether these new young talents actually have any, I was left to ponder whether there was a point -- beyond "look at me" -- to all of Ravenhill's ranting and raving. Rather than a different view of the world, Shopping and Fucking mostly delivers a gory reminder of why we're glad the '90s are nearly behind us. Ultimately, the best thing about Shopping and Fucking is its title.
Shopping and Fucking continues through Saturday, December 11, at Planet Earth Theatre, 909 North Third Street.