Brimstone and Treacle, at Cafe Voltaire

Slated for premiere as a British teleplay, this work was banned by the BBC altogether. The British institution never even gave playwright Dennis Potter, best known here for the PBS miniseries The Singing Detective and the 1982 film version of this play starring Sting, the opportunity to revise the script. But the BBC censors’ decision, if not defensible, was certainly understandable–no editing could have tamed this nasty antiestablishment rant, written, Potter said, during a savage bout of illness and hatred for the world.

In it the devil insinuates himself into the home of the Bateses, whose daughter Pattie has been left virtually comatose by a traffic accident. Flirting with Mrs. Bates and aping Mr. Bates’s right-wing lingo, prince of darkness Martin becomes Pattie’s caretaker, feeding her when the folks are around, raping her when they’re not. Potter goes on to suggest that the philandering Mr. Bates is guilty of crimes far worse than the devil’s. But for all his anger against hypocritical Tories like Mr. Bates, Potter doesn’t go beyond caricature, particularly in the case of Mrs. Bates, whose happiness seems dependent on little more than a shampoo and a rinse. Potter becomes so strident that he embodies the moral absolutism he claims to despise, and his shock tactics seem borrowed from cheesoid sources like Tommy and The Exorcist.

A grippingly evil production of the play is conceivable, but this one offers little more than a reasonable facsimile. The skilled performers are too young for their roles, they adopt a tiptoeing, afraid-to-offend approach, and the production values, among them cheap horror-movie music, are shoddy. This Brimstone and Treacle wouldn’t be banned by anyone.