Some critics, I’m sure, chortle gleefully at the prospect of writing a negative review: oh, to be witty and biting at the expense of others! I, on the other hand, genuinely hope to fall in love each time I go to a play, to justify writing a rave. Having spent my entire adult life in the theatre, I want to praise Caesar, not bury him: it’s physically painful for me to write a bad review.
I am in pain.
Off the King’s Road is flabbily written, turgidly paced, for the most part indifferently acted, and long – almost two and a half-hours.
Matt Browne, an older gentleman from Los Angeles, visits London and stays at Off the King’s Road, a sort of glorified bed and breakfast he hopes will provide a different sort of experience from the hotels he’s frequented before. He requested, in advance, a blackboard with chalk and an eraser for his room, and shortly after he arrives, he make two lists on it of what he intends to do in London – we never find out why he makes two lists, rather than one, but wot ‘o that? – then phones his therapist in Los Angeles, where it’s the middle of the night.
We discover Matt lost his wife to cancer not too long ago, and this trip is part of his recovery therapy. The other characters he encounters in London are the garrulous desk clerk of the hotel, a middle-aged female “long-term” resident, and a call girl from Zagreb whom he hires, and for whom he sorta falls.
None of it is terribly interesting, and nothing really pays off. There’s a great deal of clunky exposition at the beginning – the kind of stuff that beginning playwriting teachers warn against – and lots of instances where the characters talk aloud to themselves (or to people in picture frames?) to fill us in on why they’re doing what they’re doing. While there are attempts at jokes, the writing, unfortunately, contains not a scintilla of humor, so they fall flat. And there are a bunch of elements that are perplexing, perverse, or just plain preposterous.
Example: Ingmar Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries is a leitmotif. We’re told it’s Matt’s favorite movie; he’s brought a DVD of it to London with him; he apparently is watching it during a long scene in his room; it appears to be the stuff of a nightmare; a big deal is made of Matt’s purchase of what is implied is Liv Ullmann’s signed script (even though there’s no record of her appearing in the film); and it – and Bergman in general – are much discussed with both the clerk and Ellen Mellman (Casey Kramer, trying valiantly), the long-term resident. When Matt and Ellen go out on a “date” at the end, Matt even brings strawberries for them to eat. However, we’re never told what Wild Strawberries is about, or why it has such visceral meaning to Matt. It’s just… there.
Example: the blackboard. It’s a big deal, apparently – and the blackboard itself is pretty big, making for a lot of awkward pushing and pulling in the relatively small confines of Matt’s hotel room – but what is it all about? At one point, the therapist (a very good Thaddeus Shafer), says “Are you working with the board? It’s there for a very good reason.” I wanted to shout, “Really?!? What reason? Can someone tell me?”
Example: the first act curtain. Matt, who has had a chaste (?) encounter with the Croatian call girl – the most we see is each of them putting their heads in the other’s lap – has shown up at her place later, unannounced, to present her with a bracelet. At the end of the act, there is the sound of breaking glass, and Matt picks up something – my companion had to tell me it was the bracelet, as the staging made it difficult to see – which has been hurled through his hotel window, ostensibly by the hooker’s male friend, with whom she’d been arguing on the phone. Which leads first to the question of how her friend figured out where Matt was staying – which is sort of answered in the second act, when the woman says the hotel name came up on her phone. But then the further question arises: how did the rock-thrower know Matt’s room number? More to the point, unless he was familiar with the layout of the hotel, even if he had the room number, how would he know which window to target? In retrospect, it makes no sense.
Example: taking off from the paragraph above, if the girl’s friend was her pimp, wouldn’t he be happy a rich American gave her jewelry? Why break a window to give it back? And if he was a jealous boyfriend, did he really have no inkling his inamorata was a whore? (She distributes business cards advertising her services). Again, makes no sense.
Example: all the scenes of the therapist on the phone are played with the doctor sitting in complete darkness, unlit – even though that portion of the stage is lighted when it’s used as a corridor.
Example: the blow-up sex doll. No, I won’t. I just won’t.
Last example: Ellen goes to a one-man version of Hamlet, and returns holding a copy of Playbill magazine, which – unless things have changed since my last trip to London – is not published in England.
Live theatre can be thrilling, and there have been a number of wonderful examples in just the past six months, including Oedipus Machina, currently playing at the Odyssey. Off the King’s Road, on the other hand, is profoundly disappointing.
Off the King’s Road
Written by Neil Koenigsberg
Directed by Amy Madigan
Through August 2
2055 S. Sepulveda Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Tickets: 310-477-2055 or www.OdysseyTheatre.com