The automobile is a well-established metaphor for the American spirit, and the road trip, usually down some deserted Route 66 style highway, is practically the national epic. But it’s unusual to see this iconography recreated on stage, hard as it is to convey the idea of the open road and its limitless possibilities within the confines of the theatre.
In his 2003 play Autobahn however, Detroit-born writer Neil Labute offers up a series of claustrophobic conversations in cars that aims to explore the existential dramas that lurk at the heart of the long drive.
Seven different couples climb in and out of a sawn-off BMW on stage and after a burst of scene-setting music and video they engage (and disengage) in drifting, elliptical conversations that slowly reveal the rot in their various relationships. Labute is well known for preferring the hard option and here we get a set of dialogues that revolve around drug abuse, gang-banging, stalking and child abduction.
It’s dark, dysfunctional stuff and a grim view of the average American, though the shock factor is muted for the most part, the scenes built on hints and insinuations with slowly-extracted shards of evidence held up to the light by the foolishly inquisitive characters. That lingering, sadistic twisting-of-the-knife is a speciality of Labute’s — from his mischievously misanthropic films (such as Your Friends & Neighbors) to controversial stage hits like Bash (where misguided hicks describe beating up gays and children), dank revelations seep out like bodily fluids.
Uncomfortable for the audience, it’s an evident treat for the actors, who get to play these broken, hopeless cases. Zoe Swenson-Graham is terrific in four roles (variations on a dumbo valley girl theme), while Henry Everett nails the self-involved masochism of the beta male and finds a memorably eerie laugh for his cheerful paedophile. Sharon Maughan and Tom Slatter are also both good, especially when Labute has them heading down conversational dead ends, talking without communicating.
The presentation is clear and simple with director Tim Sullivan wisely focussing on the actors’ interactions rather than stage trickery (though the cramped space upstairs in the King’s Head theatre pub does limit the possibilities). The problem with the play is that, with seven disconnected dialogues, it feels too bitty and Labute does not draw the stories together with enough thematic purpose. Each time the characters change, he takes his foot off the gas and consequently the show never quite reaches top speed.
Autobahn is on at the King’s Head theatre pub in Islington until 20 September. Tickets £15-£25. Londonist saw this on a complimentary ticket.