Scott Cohen and Samuel West in
Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?
(© Joan Marcus)
Scott Cohen and Samuel West in
Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?
(© Joan Marcus)
Caryl Churchill's Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?, now getting its U.S. premiere at the Public Theatre under James Macdonald's resourceful direction, runs only 45 minutes, but it's somewhere between 15 and 20 minutes too long. This first tantalizing -- and then amusing and disturbing -- dark comedy-sketch all too quickly becomes predictable and repetitive.

Churchill, whose mind habitually and irresistibly runs to cryptic theatrical puzzles, has come up with yet another -- and one that's difficult to write about without peppering spoilers throughout a review. As the lights go up, an American, Sam (Scott Cohen), and an Englishman, Guy (Samuel West), sit on a couch. If that sounds like the beginning of a dirty joke, in a manner of speaking, it is. Through a series of relatively clipped exchanges the two men declare their love for each other, while increasingly indulging in acrimonious lover's spats that split them up and reunite them.

Because the nicely-upholstered couch, perched in a chase-lights bordered black box designed by Eugene Lee, continually rises during the talky action, the evidence is that the quite deliberately named Sam and Guy are getting high on each other. (Guy gets even higher when Sam plucks a hypodermic needle out of nowhere to administer a booster shot to his inamorata.) As the pair converse as well as fondle each other tastefully, the topics they hit on become increasingly political. Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq are cannoned into the volatile mix.

By the time the potential political bombshells are introduced, a paying customer may have begun to suspect that the two not-so-gay gay men stand for something more far-reaching than they initially seem. (A program insert -- which describes them as "Sam, a country" and "Guy, a man -- also hints heavily at that possibility.) Churchill is clearly furious about current geopolitical bedfellows and their unwanted meddling, and she's found a dramaturgically oblique way to vent her spleen. Her problem is that while early on she's subtle about her full intent, the playlet eventually becomes little more than a harangue. The audience understands that she's against the allied American-English involvement in the Iraq war, but enough is enough.

Cohen with his black mop-top and bulky physique is affectionately aggressive. The slimmer and more rosy-cheeked West is abashed and acquiescent; indeed, it could be said West is the ideal "bottom" to Cohen's "top." The pair is to be further commended for committing the dialogue to memory, which can't have been an easy task as Churchill is in a Pinteresque-Mametesque-Chayevskyesque mood. Many, if not most, of her lines are incomplete thoughts and just as often non-sequiturs -- a situation that also begins to wear on the audience's ears a good deal before Churchill decides to call it quits.

A question the production doesn't want to raise -- but inevitably does -- is whether Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? is already dated. When Churchill was writing the piece, Tony Blair was still in office and his prime-ministerial view of the American-English alliance prevailed. Under the more skeptical Gordon Brown, that outlook has altered. These days, Guy may not at all be drunk enough to say, "I love you."