There is a tangible sense of surprise when the audience arriving at Jermyn Street for this play by American writer Neil Koenigsberg opens programmes to see the name of Jeff Bridges prominent in the cast list. However, the bad news is that the Hollywood star appears in only three short filmed segments, tempered by the better news that his contributions prove to be the highlights of the evening. Matt Browne (Michael Brandon looking forlorn) is an American from Los Angeles who had become a widower six months earlier. He checks in at Chelsea’s Off The Kings Road hotel, a converted town house just a short walk from Peter Jones, bringing with him his California valium, a DVD of his favourite film, Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, and a board on which to chalk a bucket list for his stay in London – visit Tate Modern, see some Shakespeare, read Henry James, etc. For all that, he still needs regular chats via Skype with his shrink back home (Bridges, resembling Santa Claus on a high). The hotel’s only other long term guest is Ellen (Cherie Lunghi), a batty cat owner who is also widowed and, yes you guessed, loves Ingmar Bergman. To secure his essential needs, Browne forsakes his inflatable doll, swallows a full bottle of viagra pills and turns to a Russian prostitute with an Irish name (Diana Dimitrovici). This attracts the avid interest of Freddie (Luke Pitman), a prying page boy who boasts that the hotel’s furniture is “100% Slough”. David Brent would be proud. The ingredients for a zany comedy are all here, but, somehow Koenigsberg fails to make use of them. For long spells, the play’s sole purpose seems to be to reinforce shallow and stale stereotypes. In America, where the play has already been seen, audiences may feel that we Brits really are a bunch of loveable eccentrics. Over here, the view will be that Americans are just crass idiots with too much money. Far from exploiting the comic potential, Koenigsberg often seems unable to decide whether his play is a comedy at all or perhaps a serious drama and, in classic fashion, it falls between two stools. The poignant story of two people in their Autumn years finding comfort in each other gets buried in a deluge of misfiring gags. When Skype is disconnected, the laughs spring mostly from embarrassment, but it feels as if there are even fewer of them than in a typical Ingmar Bergman film. Bridges aside, there is very little that the actors or director Alan Cohen can do to save this limp effort, but at 90 minutes without interval, it is at least mercifully short. If only Mr Browne had decided to check in at Fawlty Towers.
Performance date: 3 June 2016