Theater Review - Shopping and F***ing not quite as fun as it sounds

Process Theatre takes a chance on Mark Ravenhill’s play and succeeds to mixed effect

In-Yer-Face Theatre” became the nickname for a wave of plays that thrust sex, violence and naughty behavior at London audiences in the 1990s. Theatrical provocateurs such as Patrick Marber, Jez Butterworth and Martin McDonagh led the way, but the movement’s signature title must be Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and F***ing, usually billed without the asterisks on the other side of the Atlantic.

It’s not terribly hard to horrify or provoke an audience, even a jaded one: just identify contemporary taboos, and break them. The warnings for “mature content” probably attract more ticket buyers than they put off. The artistic challenge is to convey the substance behind the shock value, and the Process Theatre’s production of Shopping and F***ing succeeds to mixed effect.

From the beginning, Shopping and F***ing explores social dynamics alien to many of its spectators. Ravenhill presents a surrogate family led by Mark (Scotty Gannon), who qualifies as the alpha male junkie of his household. At an earlier date, he bought Lulu (Jillian Fratkin) and Robbie (Ian Gaenssley) from an underworld figure at a supermarket, and it’s not clear whether they were sex slaves, drug addicts or both. The threesome might be penniless, but they’re functional, and the tale of the couple’s purchase serves as a kind of bedtime story.

The flatmates’ domestic bliss gets thrown out of whack when Mark resolves to stop using drugs and enter rehab, leaving Lulu and Robbie to fend for themselves. A sometime actress, Lulu applies for a job on a shopping channel, but Brian (Clint Sowell), the sleazy producer, demands she audition while wearing fewer and fewer clothes. The scene’s disturbing, exploitative tone undercuts its tantalizing possibilities.

Meanwhile, Mark’s attempts to kick the habit hit a snag with his program’s prohibition against relationships and personal attachments. Rather than just abstain from sex, Mark interprets the rule as permitting transactional trysts without emotional attachment — if you pay, it can’t be a relationship, right? He tries to hook up with a teenage rent-boy, Gary (Caleb Lawton), but feelings and personal baggage get in the way with comical speed almost as soon as they’re done haggling over money.

Now a resident company at OnStage Atlanta, Process Theatre walks a line between humor and revulsion with Shopping and F***ing. Brian weeps whenever he recalls the sentimental scenes of a hit Disney film, but happily terrorizes Lulu and Robbie when they get on his bad side. Sowell captures Brian’s incongruous humor more effectively than the role’s intimidating qualities, and suggests Steve Coogan cast as one of Quentin Tarantino’s pop-savvy hit men.

Most artists who critique consumer culture target middle-class suburbanites, but Ravenhill scrutinizes big-city bottom feeders who seek Ecstasy in pill form. When Lulu and Robbie turn to phone sex to raise money, their flat almost resembles a public broadcasting pledge drive, only the constantly ringing phones interrupt scripted dirty talk. Overall, though, Shopping and F***ing’s characters don’t seem to have a materialism problem. They have a drug abuse, prostitution and gangster problem. Metaphors such as the idea that prepackaged microwave meals foster individual isolation simply come across as hackneyed, and a sinister, climactic game of Truth or Dare feels like imitation Harold Pinter with more explicit brutality.

Tall and craggily charismatic, Gannon looks the part of a swinging hedonist seeking a more meaningful life. His performance can be tonally confusing, however, coming across as noisily anguished in funny scenes, and comically dim at more deeply emotional moments. Between the playwright’s narrative inscrutability, the occasionally dense London slang, and some weakly motivated characterizations in the Process production, the play’s intentions become difficult to sort out.

Fratkin and Lawton help ground the action in roles that serve as voices of reason and moral centers, despite their transgressive actions. Ironically, the play’s horrific moments prove less memorable than its sense of dark comedy in surprising lines like “Sorry about the arse-bleeding,” or a cheerful moment of sexual intimacy at a London department store. The Process Theatre’s daring production might have too much f***ing, and not enough shopping. As a result, it doesn’t bring out the best of a problematic script, but the company deserves credit for taking a dare.