Barrie Keefe belongs to that group of British playwrights, like David Hare and Trevor Griffiths (nominated for an Oscar as Warren Beatty's co-scenarist on "Reds"), who in the '70s took the Angry Young Man of the '50s and moved him several giant steps to the left.
Through this weekend at the Ninth Street YWCA, the Spheres Co. is presenting the Washington area premiere of Keefe's "Gimme Shelter," in which Keefe accurately dissects the ineffectual rage of would-be revolutionaries co-opted by their family and class ties.
"Gimme Shelter" is a trilogy of short, related plays. In the first, "Gem," and the last, "Getaway," set one year apart, the scene is the same: an annual company picnic outside London. Kev (Brian Hemmingsen, who also directed), a loutish chap who wears his Marxism on his sleeve, has convinced Gary (Christopher Wilson) and Janet (Barbara Klein) to attend the affair but not participate so the board room, public school types will take notice. Gary ends up playing in a cricket match with those types and has a smashing inning. Kev and Gary fight, then reconcile.
A year later, newly promoted Kev has also donned his cricket whites and Janet is pregnant. They are joined by the groundskeeper, Kid (Christopher Henley), who is just out of a prison for mentally disturbed youth. In the second play, "Gotcha," he has held his school headmaster and two teachers hostage by threatening to drop a lighted cigarette into the gas tank of his motorcycle, hidden in the school's stockroom. Kev feels a stirring of the "Internationale" in his blood and confronts the Kid. Keefe neatly scores his dramatic and ideological points in their confrontation.
Keefe's play is strong on humor and he has a gifted ear for the speech of the group he has brought on stage: the working class striving to be lower-middle. The Spheres production is bare, bare bones. This works against the players, particularly in "Gem." The audience is so busy trying to imagine the setting of the play that it takes a while to pay attention to the actors.
Henley's performance as Kid is special. With his punked-out hair and chinless, adolescent face, he has the right look. He brings a passion and pain on stage that engages an audience and won't let it go. His emotional turn around in the last play shows great range for an actor.