Every society has its class warfare, but there is something particularly pernicious and enduring about the British variety.
On the positive side, this clash of classes has served as the high-octane fuel for countless plays, from John Osborne’s landmark 1956 work “Look Back in Anger” to Laura Wade’s scathing “Posh,” first seen at London’s Royal Court in 2010. It’snow in a dazzling U.S. premiere by Steep Theatre, where director Jonathan Berry, that master of ensemble brilliance, has gathered a large, knock-your-socks-off cast.
Wade set her play in 2010, just as the “posh,” Oxford-educated David Cameron became prime minister of Great Britain, leading the Conservative party back to power after Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown — both of the Liberal party — held the reins for 13 years.
‘POSH’ Highly recommended When: Through March 12 Where: Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Tickets: $25 – $35 Info: (773) 649-3186; www.steep theatre.com Run time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission
But rather than homing in on the triumphant adult power brokers of the moment, Wade focuses on the youthful inheritors of the Conservative mantle: a group of supremely rich and privileged Oxford students who are members of an elite, centuries-old dining club at the university, one renowned for its savage, fraternity-like, hell-raising activities.
These ritualistic demolition dinners not only wreak havoc with the local community establishments that agree to host them (even if the damage to property is massaged by cash). But they assume a sort of brutal “Lord of the Flies” scenario among the lads themselves — revealing a pecking order within the pecking order. And, not surprisingly, a misogynistic rage is never far from the surface. The club is, in effect, an upper-crust gang, with all the intellectual, sexual and social insecurity that comes with such bonding, and Wade orchestrates the dynamics to perfection, with the Steep production following suit.
It begins with a discreet conversation between men of two different generations, as Jeremy (the fine-tuned Will Kinnear), a veteran Conservative politician, counsels his nephew, Guy Bellingfield (aptly wide-eyed Sean Wiberg), on what must be done to make a mark at the dinner, and to celebrate the return to power of the Conservatives.
The event is to take place at a local family-run inn operated by middle-class strivers: the very decent Chris (Alex Gillmor) and his pretty, no-nonsense, college-educated daughter, Rachel (played by Bryce Gangel with the most subtle shifts of emotion), who is working as a waitress. The menu is to be elaborate, with the entree a 10-bird-within-a-bird roast. The alcohol, however, is of greatest importance, and in several cases forced binge drinking is the weapon of humiliation and more.
Gradually, the posh boys — Wiberg, Eric Staves, Michael Kurowski, Christopher Borek, Dash Barber, Michael Holding, Colin Sphar, Matthew Garry, Ryan Hallahan and Japhet Balaban (all different, and all in command of perfect accents) — take their seats in the private dining room, deriding each other, pulling rank, testing macho credentials, arguing politics, class, ethnicity. Arriving for a brief and very tense few moments is Rachel (Kendra Thulin, in blistering form), an experienced “escort service” worker booked for the dinner, who makes it clear she has no interest in performing the services one of them describes.
It is in the play’s wonderfully insidious final scene — between Jeremy and the arrogant young club member whose future hangs in the balance — that Wade really nails the nature of privilege and protection, and captures the mechanics of powerful connections. I will not explain it any further here. Suffice it to say, it is the perfect epilogue for the smashing “Posh.”