Indie film darling Greta Gerwig is already known for being a little bit of a risk-taker with her soul-baring modern women in movies such as Greenberg and Frances Ha, but with her starring role in The Village Bike (running at MCC’s Off Broadway Lucille Lortel Theatre through June 28), she raises the notch even higher. In British playwright Penelope Skinner’s strange, confounding and challenging import, Gerwig stars as a hormonal, pregnant wife desperate for sexual exploration. (The title is slang for the local tart, in very the same manner Austin Powers first described it in 1997.) It’s the rare occasion in which a production never seems to fire on all cylinders, yet maintains an unmistakable grip on you some time later.
The Village Bike begins almost like a gentle Mike Leigh-flavored slice of life: Becky (Gerwig, in her NYC stage debut) is married to John (Jason Butler Harner), an enviro-minded actor who ignores the sexual advances of his wife in favor of extolling the virtues of organic eating (”Happy meat tastes amazing,” he declares at one point). A smalltown spouse newly stuck in the English countryside, Becky first seeks our sympathy from her harried, supermom neighbor (Cara Seymour) and a soft-spoken plumber (Max Baker) dealing with the couple’s money pit of a home. But when John leaves town for an acting gig, Becky gets bolder, moving beyond her steady diet of porn to a tryst with an eccentric (and married) local (Scott Shepherd).
What begins as an intriguing Brit-com devolves into a Neil LaBute-like scouring of gender roles and addiction, which would be fine if Skinner’s play was able to decide how serious it would like to be. But it’s hard to fully grasp the sadness of Becky’s situation when there’s a ”cleaning the pipes” sexual entendre roughly every five minutes. Skinner’s correlations between adult films and real life (many scenes play out in staccato conversation to mimic the clothed scenes in pornography) feel more like a device than organic expression. And Sam Gold, a masterful director of naturalistic mood in works like Uncle Vanya and the plays of Annie Baker, fumbles with these lighter moments, particularly early on when the characters seem so offputtingly selfish. He is more assured in the more grounded scenes exploring Becky’s darker side.
It was a bright idea to cast Gerwig, a vibrant actress who could charm the skin off a snake. (Interestingly, Gerwig stepped in after Maggie Gyllenhaal withdrew due to a scheduling conflict with her upcoming Broadway debut.) The rakishly menacing Scott Shepherd, best known as the reliable narrator in Gatz, has some terrific moments. Points too for Skinner’s unique point of view: Few modern playwrights have dared to depict a woman’s unfettered, potentially perilous sexual desire ? let alone a pregnant woman’s. The spokes on this Village Bike are a bit rusty, but its ideas may cycle through your mind well after the curtain call. B?