The popular young film star Greta Gerwig may have previously been a stranger to the New York stage, but after watching her in Penelope Skinner’s The Village Bike, now being presented by MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, let’s hope we don’t lose this gifted actress completely to Hollywood. The 30-year-old indie darling delivers a remarkably accomplished performance as Becky, a newly pregnant British teacher dealing with too much free time on a summer vacation, a horrendous heat wave, raging hormones and, especially, her overprotective husband John (the always excellent Jason Butler Harner), who’s afraid to touch her in bed for fear he might hurt the baby.
These elements come together when Becky meets the surprisingly seductive Oliver Hardcastle (Scott Shepherd, quite buff and entirely believable), a local actor who sells her his wife’s rarely used bicycle, and sparks fly. While they initially resist their attraction, the pair quickly chooses to engage in a torrid affair that ends, as many do, with unpleasant consequences.
Although some audiences might be repelled by the play’s concept of two adulterous individuals consummating their desires, it’s to Skinner’s credit, as well as the actors’, that most people will find their actions completely understandable. Indeed, what makes Skinner’s work so exciting is how frankly it treats the rarely discussed subject of women’s sexual needs. It’s Becky who decides to indulge in watching the couple’s collection of hardcore porn when John refuses to satisfy her libido. It’s Becky who raises the sexual stakes in her affair, including suggesting a threesome and acting out a rape fantasy. It’s even Becky who, in an act of utter desperation, uses the widowed local plumber (the very fine Max Baker) to try to make Oliver jealous.
Wisely, Skinner contrasts Becky with chatty neighbor Jenny (the vivid Cara Seymour), a long-married wife and mother whose husband is constantly away on business, and who seems uninterested in the idea of sex for the sake of anything other than procreation. There’s also a brief, late-in-the-show appearance by Oliver’s wife Alice (Lucy Owen), who turns out to be the complete opposite of her husband’s description of her. Women, Skinner wants us to know, are not just one thing or the other, nor are they simply what men think of them.
Intriguingly, the work has been entrusted to a male director: the increasingly in-demand Sam Gold. As usual, he deserves some of the credit for the uniformly first-rate work of the cast. And as usual, Gold indulges in a lot of theatrics, from a striking change of Laura Jellinek’s clever set during intermission to a the use of some rather over-the-top sound effects (by Daniel Kluger) and rather too-intense projections (by Darrel Moloney). He also pushes a little too hard on some of the script’s more obvious double-entendres, as if he were helming a sitcom with a laugh track. But by and large Gold treats the material with frankness and sensitivity.
Indeed, not only is this one of the more interesting productions I’ve seen in recent months, but Gerwig’s performance is one that will stay in your memory for days if not weeks. So go take this Bike for a ride, and don’t worry about the brakes!