A “village bike,” one learns in the script of Penelope Skinner’s new play, set in an English country town, is slang for a woman who has slept around — she has been ridden by everyone. At the Lucille Lortel Theatre, that description eventually applies to Becky, a young wife who is newly pregnant but not showing. Vividly embodied by film star Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha), Becky exhibits a growing erotic desperation as her husband, John (a superbly blockheaded and smug Jason Butler Harner), seems to have lost interest in having sex. But though MCC Theater's production of The Village Bike initially has the makings of a sex comedy, Skinner has much more on her mind.
Becky gradually tries to spark John's libido by watching porn movies, but nothing seems to help. At the same time, she has bought an old bicycle in the town so she can get herself out of the cottage and get some exercise, in spite of John’s overly solicitous worries. He’s the kind of guy who is more in tune with the rights of free-range chickens than his wife’s needs.
Skinner’s early scenes are laden with comic double entendre. When Mike, a plumber who has come to fix John and Becky’s leaking pipes, needs to be paid, Becky can’t find her checkbook. “What can we do?” she asks, clad in a shift and a skimpy robe. “Is there something we can do?” It’s a scene out of a porn film, delivered by the sexy Gerwig with enough ambiguous lubricity to make Max Baker’s wide-eyed handyman wonder what kind of solution she has in mind.
When Oliver Hardcastle, the seller, delivers the bike to Becky, he and Mike discuss it in language that confuses the sexually volatile Becky: “She’s a pretty one, though.” “Gorgeous.” “Hardly been ridden.” But the bike chain is not quite right, and so Scott Shepherd’s strapping Oliver promises to repair it. At the moment, however, he’s dressed as the historical character Dick Turpin in a redcoat outfit, since he’s a re-enactor in village pageants nearby. (His name and costume also suggest a nod to She Stoops to Conquer, by Oliver Goldsmith, a comedy with a character named Hardcastle that is about people assuming disguises for “romantic” reasons.) The older Oliver is also married, but his wife, Alice, has a high-powered job that takes her away from the village for long periods. Inevitably, fixing the bike becomes fixing Becky's sexual needs.
Ultimately, Becky finds herself more satisfied by the sex-without-love she has with Oliver than by the love-without-sex at home, and she takes risks to keep the fulfillment going. She and Oliver explore fantasies, such as rape-by-intruder and making videos. Skinner’s play is not so much about sexual needs as about the ways that men and women use each other. Under Sam Gold's direction, the point is made that Becky finds herself imprisoned by her marriage. And Becky’s friend, Jenny (Cara Seymour), a chatty but well-meaning neighbor, confides her frustrations at the absence of her husband, Jules, who has a job that takes him abroad. Intellectually stultified, she still advocates parenthood for Becky even as she confesses it destroyed her self-esteem and her desire for sex. But she masks her disinterest from Jules, just as Oliver seems to hide his affairs from his wife, Alice. Or does he?
With nobody to confide in, Becky becomes more and more dependent on her trysts with Oliver, and more desperate to solidify her relationship with him, even as she loses all sense of herself. Gerwig charts a course from befuddlement and dissatisfaction to tearful desperation and near-insanity. Stooping, she still fails to conquer. It’s a harrowing journey.
Shepherd brings a devil-may-care attitude to Oliver, yet Skinner implies he might be far more dangerous than Becky realizes. Harner fills a thankless part, that of a man so obsessed with social issues that he is clueless about his personal life. Talking of the apparently repaired pipes, he says, “They haven’t made a noise. Doesn’t mean it’s fixed. If something makes a noise, then stops making a noise, that’s when you should be really worried.” He has no idea it applies to his own marriage. It’s merely one of many moments to ponder at length in Skinner’s deftly plotted drama.
Penelope Skinner's The Village Bike is running until July 13 at the MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher St. between Bleecker and Hudson Sts). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and 3 p.m. on Sundays. There are no performances on July 4 and 7. For tickets, call MCC Theater at 212-727-7722 or OvationTix at 866-811-4111.