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Next-door neighbors meet, greet, and quarrel in this off-Broadway transfer from England.

Emily Bowker (far left), Graeme Brookes, Elizabeth Boag, and Alastair Whatley play bickering neighbors in Invincible, directed by Stephen Darcy, at 59E59 Theaters.
(© Manuel Harlan)

Invincible, a British comedy making its American premiere at 59E59 Theaters, is about almost everything. It encompasses extramarital sex, the death of a child, the death of a parent, the death of a pet, an inheritance of millions, a debate about the nature of art, an argument about the United Kingdom's post-9/11 military intervention in the Middle East, and a clash of socioeconomic classes. The only thing playwright Torben Betts forgot to include is humor. Neither director Stephen Darcy nor the cast supply it either, leaving the audience defenseless against Invincible's ponderous unfunniness.

The show starts with a squabble, the first of many. This one is between Emily and Oliver, an unmarried couple who recently moved from London to a north England town. They've invited over their neighbors to get to know them, a prospect that has Emily even more agitated than usual. She quarrels with Oliver first about getting married (he wants to, she doesn't), then polyphonic music, and then sex, which she's "trying to move beyond."

Enter Dawn, the knockout next door. She's the wife of Alan, who barrels in a few minutes later, running behind because he's been watching a football match. He's the beast to his wife's beauty: A hairy paunch hangs out of his shirt, and he doesn't speak his mind so much as roar it. His boorishness, combined Emily's repudiation of sex, all but announce what's to come.

Oliver (Alastair Whatley) gazes raptly at the spectacle of voluptuousness that is his neighbor Dawn (Elizabeth Boag).
(© Manuel Harlan)

Betts has tricked out his threadbare adultery plot with complications galore. Oliver's mother is dying. Dawn has a son (not Alan's) at risk of dying. Alan fancies himself an artist until Emily, a professional painter, tells him his portraits "are not terribly good," a verdict that prompts him to renounce painting forever.

The problem with Betts's script isn't the presence of complications; it's their number and treatment. Some are presented as the stuff of farce (Emily crushing Alan's artistic aspirations) and others as the stuff of pathos (Dawn fretting over her son). Darcy's direction does nothing to clarify matters. The world in which these characters move looks like our own, so why do they enter the home of people they barely know without knocking? Why does a realistically represented middle-class house transform momentarily into a dance club, complete with colored lighting and "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine" pulsing?

This inconsistency does the actors no favors. They play their parts with energy, but the result is an amplification of the script's contradictions and inanities. Alastair Whatley as Oliver has the dubious distinction of being the least abrasive. Graeme Brookes's Alan, on the other heavy hand, is grating and obvious. "I know I bore you," he says in one of his monotone-ologues. "I bore everyone. I am boring. I bore people. I talk too much and what I say is boring."

At least the set (by Victoria Spearing and Minglu Wang) and costumes (by David Morgan) aren't boring, though they too exhibit incongruities. Emily and Oliver's home is meticulously designed and, with abstract art on the walls and book-filled shelves, it looks like a place where these "posh" London transplants, as Dawn calls them, would live. But then there's Emily's copy of Das Kapital that's the size of a coffee table book and a toy train that chugs around the roof to symbolize her and Oliver's move from London. And while Morgan has costumed Alan appropriately awkwardly in a football jersey and short shorts, and Emily and Oliver look poshly casual, Dawn's scarlet spaghetti-strap dress makes her look less like a woman who lives on the same small-town street where she grew up than like a supermodel who just stepped off a Milanese runway.

If only this production had done more with less! In its frenzy to be funny and poignant and realistic and surreal, it ends up being as boring as Alan. If Betts had narrowed his focus to one or two topics and Darcy had settled on a single tone, their show might have been as powerful as its title suggests. Instead, Invincible falls victim to its own overreaching.


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