Like many contemporary plays, British dramatist Penelope Skinner’s The Village Bike begins with a situation and a not very promising one at that. The just-pregnant schoolteacher Becky (Elissa Stebbins) has made plans to buy a used bike. In a truly odd marital spat, Becky’s husband, John (Nick Medina), who is going off to Amsterdam for an anti-aging conference, would prefer that his wife take up a different sport. He thinks yoga is the proper exercise for the newly-pregnant. And if she gets a bike, he would like for her to buy one from a shop of his choosing, and not from a man whose wife is out of town while he’s out of town.
The couple’s conversation is awkward and has vaguely sexual overtones without actually being sexual. John has unusual concerns about used bikes. “You don’t know where it’s been,” he says, “Who’s been on it.” Becky responds that the wife of the man selling the bike has, and what would it matter anyway? John counters with a haughty, “So he says.” And we, along with Becky, are taken aback. In what world would a man, or anyone, do something to a bike that would make it unfit to ride? Is this a new kind of terrorism of the bourgeois class?
It all feels sketchy and on the level of a one-joke Saturday Night Live skit. When the plumbing in the couple’s fixer-upper house groans emphatically, repeatedly — and with one of the worst off stage sound effects I’ve ever heard — John insists that he doesn’t want Becky to think he’s ignoring the pipes. Then she pops out of the bathroom in a new, silky nightie and he predictably shows little interest. We knew that was going to happen: sexually clueless husbands have been a theater staple since the Romans, and it has the desired — or one might say, undesired — effect of sleazy, unarticulated porn.
Nina Ball’s set doesn’t seem to help the situation, with its slap-dash quality reminiscent of mid-70’s soap operas that’s provisional and overly concerned with realistic effects. Yes, there’s running water in the kitchen faucet, but functionality isn’t an aesthetic achievement. Ray Oppenheimer’s lighting seems off, too, as if the designer couldn’t settle on a consistent thought or mood. And the acting is unsure, along with the British accents. You think this can’t last, that the show will fall to pieces, and yet somehow Shotgun Players’ production triumphs under Patrick Dooley’s sly direction.
That’s because both the production and play are relentless. Skinner keeps pushing forwards with a lovely core message — live for your desires — and Shotgun’s team embraces that ideal right through their mistakes. Here, every vice becomes a virtue, a minor miracle that shouldn’t happen. Like her callow heroine, the dramatist doesn’t seem to care how we get there, only that we do. In both art and life, that kind of reckless commitment is thrilling.