It’s one in the morning, the stale aftermath of Independence Day, and two cops have hauled a couple of petty hoods into the grubby squad room of a downtown New York precinct for questioning about the murder of an elderly storeowner. Blustering veteran Kelly and his younger colleague, Jack, want to know which one of these lowlife crooks pulled the trigger - twitchy young junkie Jimmy Rosehips or his more composed older partner, Simon Cohn, aka Sean de Kahn?
The question exercises the two officers in fits and starts as the night unfolds, but Thomas Babe’s 1978 play isn’t so much a police procedural - still less a whodunit - as a testosterone-drenched psychodrama that probes insistently at issues of masculinity and fatherhood, desire and guilt.
Babe’s play hasn’t been seen in London since the 1978 Royal Court production, starring Donal McCann and Antony Sher. Today, his brand of febrile machismo appears terribly dated. Director Dominic Hill and designer Giles Cadle give A Prayer their best shot, however, playing the drama’s claustrophobic intensity to the hilt by reshaping the interior of the Young Vic to create an almost gladiatorial arena bounded by two steep banks of seating.
This means that the play’s scenes of full-frontal nudity and equally naked drug injection are even more brazenly confrontational, but Hill’s staging can’t surmount the overly schematic nature of Babe’s writing, which pits each cop against each crook in turn, and gives everyone at least one self-revealing monologue. The acting is fine, however, and Colin Morgan, returning to the Young Vic after his brilliant debut in last year’s Vernon God Little, is especially impressive as the jittery Jimmy. Yet neither he, nor Matthew Marsh and Corey Johnson’s flawed lawmen, nor Sean Chapman’s Vietnam vet turned criminal, can prevent Babe’s divagations about American manhood from sounding portentous and sentimental.