A CurtainUp Review
The Village Bike
By Elyse Sommer
In Playing With Grownups, which opened a month ago, an older, first time mother discovers that she cares more for her side lined career than motherhood, especially since the baby is colicky. The mother in Our New Girl, which also opens tonight at Atlantic Theater's 2nd Stage, doesn't yearn for the high powered career she gave up to be a full time mother to her son (also colicky and now a difficult 8-year old). In fact she's pregnant again. Her dilemma is dealing with full-time motherhood and trying to start a home business with a frequently absent husband. (Playing with Grownup's Review & Our New Girl Review).
Becky (Greta Gerwig) the mom in Penelope Skinner's The Village Bike now at MCC's West Village home, is still in the early stage of pregnancy. Her concern is not the having-it-all conundrum but that pregnancy has thrown her always strong libido into sky high gear. Unfortunately, the reverse is true for her husband John (Jason Butler Harner), who is now interested only in the baby in his wife's belly rather than "doing it." The stash of pornographic films which they once used to enhance their sex life, no longer turns him on. In fact, he seems sworn to celibacy to protect the unborn baby despite his wife's assurance that the baby's in her womb and not her vagina.
The Skinner play is essentially a sex comedy and the question it poses is not how to strike a balance between career and motherhood but whether sexual adventurousness and familial stability can be compatible. And don't let that comedy label fool you into expecting a tea cozy entertainment about life in a peaceful British village of thatch-roofed cottages.
The title is just one example of the way Ms. Skinner has loaded her script with double meanings. Her play is indeed set in a typical close to London village and it does prominently feature a bicycle and its owner's actions are not incompatible with the slang definition of that term cited at the top of this review. Other such innuendos pop out throughout the two hours.
But while the audience at the performance I attended guffawed at the the way Skinner's anti-heroine deals with her raging hormones The Village Bike has quite a dark underside. With hard core porn featuring prominently there are scenes that are sad and uncomfortable to watch. What's more, Becky ends up as much the victim of her own counter to the norm behavior as any character in the sin, suffer and repent formula that once prevailed in women's magazine fiction. While she champions the idea of accepting the new normal of female sexuality (meaning as aggressive as the male's) she seems less sanguine about the effects of the normalizing of pornography.
Though it takes a while to make her points, the playwright deftly combines her view of women's sexuality with a satirical take on over the top saving-the-planet conscious shopping. The opening finds Becky and John in bed. He's engrossed in a book about what to do or not do during a pregnancy, as Becky tries to lure him into her arms with a sexy new nightie. Nothing doing! That leaves Becky confused and frustrated to rely on those pornographic videos that inadvertently got packed with their possessions when they moved from their London flat to their new suburban village home.
This being a six character play, Becky gets a chance to grin and bear it per the assurance of Jenny (Cara Seymour), a well-meaning neighbor and mother of two, that the babies will bring her more joy than sex ever will. (Obviously, she speaks from experience, as the lonely wife of a doctor who like the husband of Our New Girl's Hazel is frequently away on doing-good work missions).
The bike of that double entendre title presents a more exciting alternative to a sexless pregnancy — the chance to act out some of her more bizarre and cliched fantasies with Oliver (Scott Shepherd), the town's adulterous amateur actor. To help this fantasy life gather melodramatic momentum there's also Mike (Max Baker), the widowed plumber who is called in to fix the metaphorically misbehaving "sweaty pipes" in Becky and John's cottage.
While none of these characters ever feel fully authentic, this can't be blamed on the actors. Film and TV actress Gerwig (Frances Ha and the upcoming pilot for the How I Met Your Mother spinoff, How I Met Your Father) is attractive, and ultimately quite poignant. Jason Butler Harner, Max Baker and Cara Seymour engender comedy and pathos from the boringly obsessed husband, the widowed plumber and desperately lonely neighbor.
Best of all is Scott Shepherd as Oliver. It's a different sort of role for the actor best known for his work with the cutting edge Wooster Group and he embraces Oliver's swagger full tilt. He lets us see the man's chilly persona, even while he amuses as the fantasy-come-true guy who sells Becky his absent wife Alice's old bike. The chemistry between him and Gerwig's Becky is potent. However, Lucy Owen seems an almost unnecessary character, considering her miniscule appearance as the often betrayed Alice, and the ending which takes us back to John and Becky's bedroom is somewhat flat and pat.
The busy Sam Gold paces the play well and neatly deploys the actors through the various bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens of Laura Jellnek's set. The prop movers who literally turn that set around during the intermission deserve a special hand for their efficiency in doing so. Darrel Maloney's projections of Becky riding her bike makes for two of the second act's most dynamic moments.
Unlike the cheesy Fifty Shades of Gray, The Village Bike has enough quality writing and originality to make it worth seeing. Just don't bring the kids.