The quickest devolution of thoughtful characterization I’ve seen on stage this year takes place between the first and second acts of Kate Attwell’s Testmatch (at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater through Dec. 8). The playwright’s ambitious impulse to write a corrective for the tragedy of British colonialism overrides the promise of her initial premise. Six cricket players, three each from opposing teams, are rained out of their World Cup match. They wait out the weather in a lounge drinking cups of tea, stretching their limbs and chitchatting.
The English team moans about the wet, grim day. And then the Indian team follows suit. At first, they stay huddled together in their respective groups holding onto a healthy amount of mistrust for their opponents. But the players start to let their guards down after sharing an idle afternoon and the same feelings of frustration about not being able to compete.
Cricket rules may seem arcane to people unfamiliar with the game. But Attwell manages to weave in background information about it without sounding dull or too didactic. By creating a roster of relatable characters, they can organically pepper the conversation with meaningful details about the sport they’re playing. Personally, the playwright may or may not be a fan of cricket. She’s chosen it — and these particular teams — because of the historical weight this World Cup event suggests. Some 70 years after India gained its independence from England, Testmatch reckons with the modern-day tensions that are a direct result of colonialism.
It only takes a second angry confrontation between the players before the racist slur “Paki” rolls off the tongue of England 2 (Arwen Anderson) (Attwell doesn’t name the characters). Until then, 2 is mainly concerned with extolling the virtues of dating rugby players instead of cricketers. Her ex-boyfriend is a cricketer and he’s recently broken up with her. England 3 (Millie Brooks) is good-natured and vapid. She just wants everybody to get along but doesn’t seem to possess the skills or backbone of an actual peacekeeper.
England 1 (Madeline Wise) is the best batsman in the country (or batswoman, both terms are in use). She’s dating an American sports star and has just secured a lucrative advertising contract. As the rain persists, the team’s star player becomes increasingly impatient. She’s inexplicably volatile and breaks a bat in a violent temper tantrum before fleeing from the room. When she returns in a later scene, 1 reveals that she’s made a bet to throw the game. Not only is she crooked but she’s unapologetic about being in the game for the money. When 1 offers 3 in on the deal, she momentarily hesitates before agreeing to join right in.
With this collection of racists, cheats and fools, it’s no wonder the English lost their empire — which is Attwell’s point. The Indian team is the inheritor, not the inventor, of cricket. They’re purists who value the art of combat and they’re out for revenge. They want to win the match because of their talents but not because it’s rigged. India 2 (Lipica Shah) overhears 1’s lurid confession and threatens to tell the cricket police. But 2’s a closeted lesbian from a conservative family and 1 threatens her right back with blackmail.
When Act II opens, the characters and their dilemmas vanish without any resolution. Attwell picks up the story in India under British rule, a century before the first act. Dialogues that were measured and insightful give way to an unwatchable farce filled with, not people, but balloon-shaped people inflated for the express purpose of popping with a stick pin. The ancestors of Act I’s racists, cheats and fools wouldn’t be out of place on The Benny Hill Show, a grating TV sketch show that was already stale in 1971.
When Testmatch concerns itself with asking why the English behaved the way they did, Attwell has one lord admiral eminence say to another something along the lines of, “Let’s go have a wank over a pile of money.” With that oversimplified quip, colonialism is summed up and tidily accounted for. It’s hard to believe that these two divergent acts were written by the same playwright. Shortly thereafter, a messenger (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) arrives. She delivers an impassioned speech about the famine, deaths and suffering that the English have wrought. This monologue is placed in the middle of so much buffoonery that it doesn’t register. It doesn’t belong there.
The angry cricket teams resonate dramatically because the characters embody the consequences of their countries’ intertwined past. They deserve to have names and complete storylines instead of being replaced by empty-headed ninnies in padded costumes.
Testmatch, through Dec. 8, at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St. $15-$110; 415-749-2228, or act-sf.org.