The staff of a not entirely scrupulous burglar-alarm sales office in an unnamed American city are coming to the end of their meal in a Chinese restaurant when their conversation is interrupted by a passing sixteenth-century theologian who stops to harangue them on original sin. Keith Reddin's Life During Wartime may take its title from a Talking Heads song about modern urban anomy, but one of its major onstage characters is John Calvin; normally restricting himself to appearances between scenes, Calvin reminds us that "we are covered with infinite filth" and proclaims doomily that young salesman Tommy's affair with his alluring older client Gale is not going to end well. Of course it isn't: they are surrounded by the likes of an urban redneck gun collector, Tommy's bull-headed boss Heinrich, who is not above arranging break-ins pour encourager les autres, and of course Calvin himself – what chance do they have?
Toby Reisz's production is scrupulously acted and directed, with an eloquence and elegance which Reddin's play does not really deserve. It is an interesting notion to take the random – or not so random – violence of a modern city and use it as a frame for a dramatic meditation on free will versus predestination, but whilst the narrative canvas may be modest, it is hard to conceive of a more ostentatious device than actually plonking Calvin into the middle of things to take care of the thematic business, still less having him debate Max Weber with the ghost of Gale (oops, that gives away the plot). The original amusement of the conceit does not travel well back to Europe. What remains is a slight if nicely observed piece, ending with the banality of Tommy remarking, "I'll just have to take my chances" – exactly the kind of moralising end-of-sitcom platitude which Calvin (I kid you not) had so derided only a few minutes earlier.
Nathan Nolan has an engaging freshness as Tommy, John Sharian's Heinrich falls midway between Ernst Blofeld and Jesse Ventura (this is a compliment), and Helene Kvale is undersold as Gale. But Reddin's play is much less profound and clever than it either believes of itself or tries to persuade us.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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