PLAYWRIGHT: Richard Bean
STARRING: Stephen Merchant, Steffan Rhodri
The success of Tony-winning London hit "One Man, Two Guvnors" has made Richard Bean a bankable playwright: His factory-set 1999 debut "Toast" popped up on the London fringe last year, and now "The Mentalists," a slight, subtle two-hander that was originally part of an experimental National Theater season in 2002, has been repurposed as a star vehicle for Stephen Merchant, co-creator of "The Office" and "Hello Ladies," to make his West End debut. It's a mismatch, though, as Abbey Wright's production steamrolls the play's ideas with sitcom-style laughter --and can't even find much of that.
Merchant plays Ted, a middling man in the middle of a midlife crisis, convinced lie's hit upon a path to enlightenment. Inspired by psychologist B. F. Skinner's sci-fi novel "Walden Two," which sets out a blueprint for a utopian community, he's come to a tatty hotel in Finsbury Park to record a video message to like-minded souls. Behind the camera is Morrie, his old "china" (plate; rhyming slang for "mate"), a camp Cockney hairdresser and part-time soft-porn producer, played by Steffan Rhodri ("Gavin & Stacey").
Bean's play is far more interesting than Wright's production allows. Here it becomes an odd-couple comedy about two eccentrics left to their own devices to extemporize at length. Ted is a discontented conservative huffing and puffing about the way things are heading. Morrie's a fantasist, muttering fabrications about his father and claiming various virtuosic sexual conquests.
Bean used to be a standup comedian, and he's given his characters half-decent routines, which Merchant and Rhodri dispatch as such. Nerdy Ted rattles off a list of Britain's highways, and fumes about the fake maple-wood door. Morrie shuffles around and soothes his old friend with a relaxing head massage.
What Wright doesn't tap into, at least not until the very end, is the play's concern with mental illness. Merchant and Rhodri play the surface without digging deeper, and there's no sense of the history between these characters-- no sign of their 15 years in a children's home together, no trace of their previous misdemeanors. While Wright's right to keep us in the dark about their mental health issues, she never makes anything of the ambiguity Bean sows. Both men seem like ordinary oddballs. That Ted has a corpse in the trunk of his car doesn't make you re-evaluate the man. Instead, it tips the play past credibility.
But it shouldn't. Bean is up to something more sophisticated-- arguably more so than he can handle. Invoking Skinner throughout, the play illustrates and critiques the behaviorist's psychological theories, in particular that external conduct can be evaluated, but not internal thoughts. The two characters might act in an outwardly rational manner --quirky, but not insane--but both are delusional and mentally ill. You see that clearly at the end, but it comes as a bolt from the blue rather than shedding new light on everything that's come before. Merchant never finds the desperation in Ted. He seems a harebrained bumpkin rather than a man on the edge.
Skinner also believed that our behavior tends toward replicating itself, a process known as reinforcement-- hence Morrie's trotting out the same stories over and over, and Ted's fretting about the changing world. It's a play that sees the reasoning in right-wing thinking, admitting that the Daily Mail and conservatism might have their place, psychologically speaking, while also suggesting a certain irrationality, even a madness, in that. Not that you'd know it from Wright's production.
CREDITS: An Old Vic Prods., Smith & Brant Theatricals, Steven Harris and Sam Levy production of a play in two acts by Richard Bean. DIRECTED BY Abbey Wright. DESIGN, Richard Kent; LIGHTING, David Plater; SOUND, Ben and Max Ringham. Opened reviewed July 13, 2015. RUNNING TIME: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN. CAST: Stephen Merchant, Steffan Rhodri