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Play without words


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I saw Play Without Words today -- the last day of its run in Brooklyn -- and was disappointed. I wanted to see it because it's based on a 1960s movie by Joseph Losey (screenplay by Harold Pinter) that frankly has the sexiest seduction scene I've ever seen on the screen -- Vera Miles as a housemaid, draped over a chair and turning her upper-class master into a blob of silly putty. But the movie was about more than that -- like all of Pinter's work, it was a disturbing look under the surface of British society.

What Matthew Bourne has done is to take the seduction scene and turn into a whole show. Two upper-class Brits are engaged to be married, but through the agency of the guy's sinister servant each winds up lusting after and tangling with a working-class sex object. This enables the sinister servant to humiliate his master. Each of the key parts is played by two or three dancers, and the seduction scenes are sexy indeed, and beautifully danced. For some reason, though, during the second half of the show I began to get a premonition that it would all end right where it began, with the master back in his comfy chair and the housemaid marveling at the fancy decor. Sure enough, that's what happens. The message is that nothing has really happened -- this was all a nasty little fantasy about the "real feelings" that go unexpressed between masters and servants in merry old England.

The doubling and tripling of the parts has the effect of underscoring the unreality of what we're seeing. If it could be happening in multiple ways, we realize that it isn't really happening at all -- hence the premonition that there will be no denouement, nothing learned, nothing changed, in the characters or in us, the audience. This, I think, is actually a formula for success in commercial theater -- and Matthew Bourne has certainly scored a success. Play Without Words played to a packed house and got a roaring ovation. Bourne is a clever guy, and his dancers and musicians are top-drawer. But Play Without Words is aptly titled -- it has nothing to say.

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