"She's like the village bike. Everyone has had a ride." Though that slang idiom doesn't appear in the text of British dramatist Penelope Skinner's 2011 dark comedy The Village Bike, now seeing its New York premiere via MCC Theater, it certainly could describe, for better or for worse, its protagonist. Becky is a thirtysomething woman whose sex drive has skyrocketed ever since she's gotten pregnant. When her husband refuses to have sex with her, out of fear that he will hurt the baby, Becky must take some extraordinary steps in order to satisfy her needs.
In Sam Gold's production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, rising indie film star Greta Gerwig plays Becky, a very suitable choice (on paper) if you're familiar with her work, namely Frances Ha, a coming-of-age flick that she cowrote and also starred in. Yet Gerwig is ill at ease in this daring play that isn't given the chance to fully express itself within the confines of Gold's staging, which is focused on the wrong things.
The text of this play is practically revolutionary, and it's no question why The Village Bike won Skinner a pair of Most Promising Playwright awards upon its premiere at the Royal Court. Skinner explores sexuality and sexual desire from the perspective of a female character, as opposed to a man. In this case, the newly pregnant Becky is the person who has taken to watching porn and masturbating in order to satisfy the itch that her husband refuses to scratch. John (played with a bit too much restraint by Jason Butler Harner), on the other hand, is more concerned with reading baby books, befriending local parents (Jenny, a local earth mother nicely rendered by Cara Seymour), and conserving the environment.
It is Becky who eventually initiates an extramarital liaison with Oliver (Scott Shepherd), a local married man who sold her a new bicycle. Becky is also the one who asserts that she doesn't want Oliver to leave his wife, Alice (Lucy Owen, in a shocking cameo appearance), and that she won't grow attached. "I hate this whole thing like women can't have sex without getting 'emotionally' involved," Becky tells him. "I've had sex with loads of men and not given a sh*t afterwards." Becky is a woman who takes her life into her own hands, and, like anyone, male or female, puts herself in line for a terrible risk, suffering consequences that she doesn't expect.
Skinner's text is at its best when it subverts expectations of how men and women behave. Perhaps deliberately, some of the writing lacks subtlety; double entendres and various bits of innuendo are present at every turn, down to the blocked up, "sweaty pipes" within Becky and John's apartment (this factoid is pointed out by a lonely old plumber played by Max Baker).
Director Gold tries to play up a kitchen-sinky tone throughout, but that doesn't gel with the fact that the play is, at its essence, a very dark comedy. His creative team is similarly misguided: Laura Jellinek's set is needlessly massive, and Clint Ramos' costumes are too frumpy. Daniel Kluger's score of incidental music, on the other hand, is more in tune with the tongue-in-cheek style of Skinner's script, using the sounds of women moaning in pleasure to form its basis.
Onstage, Gerwig is a magnetic presence — you can't take your eyes off her. But she never looks quite comfortable, especially when tasked with overtly putting Becky's sexuality on display. Remarkably, this discomfort does work to her advantage at one point in the production, in a shocking and chilling scene in the second half opposite the buff, hyper-masculine Shepherd. But it's hard not to wish she was guided into a more nuanced performance, one with as many layers as are present in the play.