Women crave sex. This is news? Some of the reviews from London, where Penelope Skinner’s The Village Bike premiered at the Royal Court in 2011, made it seem as if this theme were stereotype-upending. Yet for decades the most popular magazines and fiction aimed at women would have us believe that they lust after little else. So where, in this American production from MCC Theater, marking the off-Broadway debut of indie-movie darling Greta Gerwig, is the thrill?
In fact, the excitement lies not in the avidity with which Becky (the Gerwig character) pursues satisfaction, but in the skill with which Skinner handles a broader theme: the desire, lurking not only in women, for sexual release as well as relationship stability.
The play unfolds in a fairy-tale time and place: “a village somewhere in middle England at the height of summer”. Becky, a schoolteacher, is expecting. Her husband, John (the expertly underplaying Jason Butler Harner), treats the pregnancy as a reason not to have sex. More concerned with eco-friendliness in the world than with what’s going on in his own house, John is perpetually worn out from his job directing TV ads for posh products.
Becky confesses her frustrations to Jenny (the fearlessly unglamorous Cara Seymour), and attempts to banish them by making advances towards Oliver, a local who has sold her a bike. Her initial lunge at him was the only moment when the play truly contradicted my conditioned expectations.
The Village Bike relies heavily on the quality of its Becky, as she appears in virtually the entire play. Gerwig has displayed her expertise in film after film, from Hannah Takes the Stairs to Damsels in Distress to Frances Ha, in which the camera approached her with French New Wave breathlessness. She has developed an uncanny ability to express mild despair – heartache blended with offbeat humour.
In The Village Bike, directed by Sam Gold, she utilises that acumen in Becky’s wordless moments. Gerwig proves that, emotionally, she isn’t just a spectacular subject for the camera, but can also scale up for a live audience. Too often when she speaks, however, she betrays lack of vocal technique. Her performance is more accomplished than assured. But she and the play sustained my interest.