Signature Theatre's opening of "The Blue Room" has been highly anticipated. It's a chance for those who couldn't get to New York a few seasons ago to see what all the fuss was about when this show, a satirical contemplation of sex, sizzled its way from sold-out performances in London to sold-out houses on Broadway. Did the play, David Hare's adaptation of a century-old story, become a sensation by offering incisive commentary on men and women today? Or did it merely capitalize on the well-publicized nude scenes of leading lady Nicole Kidman?
Signature's lively and engaging production answers the question. If it were not for keen interest by so many about Kidman appearing in the buff, "The Blue Room" might still have been successful, but it would have been of the footnote rather than headline-grabbing variety. It is precisely because Signature's production is so well realized that one can see the play at its best, thus revealing its limitations as well. Ably directed by Wendy C. Goldberg, the play is clever and amusing, but it does not have much new to say about love or lust or how illusion and self-delusion play into them.
What is most notable about the play is not its message but its medium, the daisy-chain story line following 10 interconnected characters portrayed by only two actors in a series of vignettes. "The Girl" meets "the Cab Driver," and they couple. Then "the Cab Driver" meets "the Au Pair," and they hook up. "The Au Pair" goes on to "the Student," and so forth.
Portraying all the couples with only two actors is a theatrical preference and not content driven. Original director Sam Mendes made that choice after he persuaded Hare to update the once-scandalous play "Reigen," written by Arthur Schnitzler in Vienna in 1896 (more familiar as the 1950 film "La Ronde"), and all who follow accept that arrangement.
Actors Rick Holmes and Deborah Hazlett -- who perhaps not so coincidentally resembles Kidman -- are called upon to display technical skill and speed. Nuances disappear as they rapidly breathe life into characters who suddenly appear, projecting their fantasies onto their partners in rapidly changing scenes of seduction. Both are competent with the thinly sketched characters, particularly Holmes as he ranges from self-possessed cabbie to a gauche student, a ridiculously self-absorbed playwright, a smug politician and an anxiety-riddled "aristocrat."
Hazlett's work seems less dimensional, but she has less to work with for several of the characters: the obligatory hooker, a sexy au pair and stereotypical coke-sniffing model, all of whom seem to be variously shaded victims. She is much more definitive as the politician's skittish wife who suddenly takes charge of the inexperienced male student after he suffers performance anxiety, and as a pretentious actress.
Having only two actors play all the parts somewhat dilutes the irony that a variety of characters from various layers of society can end up in similar states of disillusionment after primarily sexual encounters. It also results in expectations that the actors must turn in strong performances, focusing attention on how they go about their work.
Despite the nudity from both actors, the sex scenes are oddly cool, interrupted by blackouts featuring laugh-inducing projections that announce the elapsed time of each union.
Set and lighting designer Michael Brown has created a minimalist scenic motif featuring a broad, ribbonlike loop for a proscenium. It not only frames the action but is also a constant reminder that each coupling taking place within it is just one in a never-ending series, the loop not knotted but loosely formed, the ribbon continuing on.
"The Blue Room" continues through July 11 at Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Dr., Arlington. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. There is no show July 4. Special holiday performances will be held July 3 at 2 p.m. and July 5 at 8 p.m. For tickets or more information, call 703-218-6500 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.