Thursday, May 5, 2011

London Calling: Curtain Up in the UK

Matthew Fox and Olivia Williams, “In a Forest Dark and Deep”
Six plays in nine days proved to be a brilliant means of ignoring royal wedlock during a recent trip to England, while also fulfilling a longtime dream to immerse myself in London theater or theatre, as the locals prefer. April was sunny in the often rainy city, enhanced by a sudden heatwave that felt more Mediterranean than Thames. But I enjoyed the resulting lush vegetation primarily en route to sit in darkened venues, watching four grim dramas, one partially comedic take on serious global tensions and a single farce.

In a Forest Dark and Deep unfolded at the 140-year-old Vaudeville Theatre in the legendary West End district. The two-character piece was written and directed by Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, his 1997 debut film), an American whose work has also been staged off-Broadway. The current enterprise stars a bearded Matthew Fox (TV’s Lost) as Bobby and Olivia Williams (a Brit seen in The Ghost Writer, 2010) as Betty, estranged siblings who spend an embattled evening together at her A-frame cabin in the woods where revelations will soon expose many painful secrets.

Their lives have diverged sharply: he’s a twice-divorced, minimally educated, angry, macho carpenter; married with two kids, she’s a college dean who teaches literature. The mismatch pits a redneck from the school of hard knocks versus a reinvented intellectual from academia, but is blood thicker than the beer Bobby swills or the wine Betty presumably sips? This harrowing psychological thriller with a pair of very fine actors delves into the rot of denial (hers) and the perils of rage (his). They are damaged goods. Although often dubbed a misanthrope, LaBute conveys compassion for them.

Parkinson, Matthews, Leech and Brooke in “Ecstasy”
LaBute may be a misanthrope, but Mike Leigh is frequently called a “miserablist.” The esteemed writer-director, who has created notable live and cinematic projects in his four-decade career, decided this spring to remount a 1979 play, Ecstasy, at the Duchess Theatre. He revisits his trademark observation of the human condition with jolly good humor masking torment, so the title could well have been Agony. At its center is Jean (the charismatic Sian Brooke), a lovely working-class woman probably in her late 30s who drinks copious amounts of gin and submits to joyless sex with loutish blokes. The action begins during one such encounter. She’s next to the married Roy (Daniel Coonan), both naked and post-coital in her drab, cramped North London furnished room.

Roy later returns for more, tries to rape her when she becomes passive almost to the point of comatose, then flees following the arrival of his furious wife. Jean then sinks further into despair, her constant companion. She has a periodically funny, otherwise forlorn mantra – the word “yeah,” drawn out and free of emotion – that signals a lack of engagement with the world. This is true even once three old pals come to her place for a night of cigarettes, alcohol, reminiscences and the drunken singing of sentimental tunes, from ”Danny Boy” to “Love Me Tender.” The gang that assembles includes Dawn (Sinead Matthews) as the raucous, sassy wife of Mick (Allen Leech), an extroverted, asthmatic Irish barfly. There’s also the decent but geeky Len (Craig Parkinson), who has moved back in with his mother after a failed marriage. Jean is the quiet one among them.

With temporary collective escapism fueled by booze, the quartet frolics. When the others leave, Jean’s tragic reality surfaces in a confession to Len. No simple solution exists for her daily descent into depression. But, while Leigh generally does not devise traditional happy endings, he tends to at least hint there might be some reason to hope.

Elisabeth Moss and Keira Knightley in “The Children’s Hour”
The Ecstasy cast is little known and incredibly talented. By contrast, The Children’s Hour boasts big Hollywood names and minimal abilities. This remake of a 1934 Broadway hit by Lillian Hellman – adapted for two subsequent films made by William Wyler, in 1936 and 1961 – features Keira Knightley (Atonement), Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), Ellen Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream) and Carol Kane (Taxi).

The story is set at an all-girls boarding school run by Karen (Knightley) and Martha (Moss), close friends since college. When they reprimand adolescent Mary (Bryony Hannah), the manipulative little sociopath seeks revenge by telling her influential grandmother (Burstyn) that the two women are lovers. They launch an unsuccessful lawsuit for slander. In the uptight 1930s, the scandal destroys everyone involved. Martha’s Aunt Lily (Kane), a teacher, does not stand by them. Karen’s fiance (Tobias Menzies) wants to be there for her but she selflessly rebuffs his offer, perhaps to spare him the shame.

The creaky plot is not helped by uneven performances: Moss and Burstyn deliver their lines in a naturalistic style. No surprise, Knightley comes across as artificial and brittle. Kane’s sequences are over-the-top, with an unidentifiable accent that renders her dialogue difficult to understand. But it is Bryony Hannah, a rather petite adult, who truly wrecks the already irksome proceedings with dreadful overacting. Nonetheless, a capacity crowd at the Comedy Theatre –  built in 1881 – greeted the curtain call with a standing ovation. I lost a bit of respect for London audiences, though perhaps the hall was full of tourists in town for the monarchy nuptials.

Henry Goodman and Susannah Wise, “The Holy Rosenbergs”
A transition from Church of England wedding to Jewish funeral, The Holy Rosenbergs was on tap in an intimate space at the sprawling National Theatre complex in a happening riverside neighborhood called South Bank. This tragicomic Ryan Craig play concerns a British family, residents of the Edgeware community, torn apart by opposing views about the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate. A son has just been killed while serving as a helicopter pilot in the Holy Land. A daughter, Ruth (Susannah Wise), is an attorney who works for a human rights campaign investigating atrocities on both sides of the conflict.

The local rabbi (Philip Arditti) asks her to stay away from the burial being held the next day because people in the congregation believe she would desecrate her brother’s memory. If Ruth refuses, her parents – David and Lesley (Henry Goodman and Tilly Tremayne) – will suffer more of a downturn in their troubled catering business thanks to outraged Edgeware folks who cannot tolerate even-handed but divergent views. Meanwhile, the Rosenbergs’ youngest son, Jonny (Alex Waldmann), is a rebellious slacker. Amid all the uproar, the thorny geopolitical topic is thoroughly debated, possibly a bit too thoroughly and earnestly when Ruth’s boss appears at the house to argue on behalf of justice.

Anne-Marie Duff and Tommy McDonnell, “Cause Celebre”
Justice is a mixed bag in Cause Celebre at the venerable Old Vic, constructed on Waterloo Road in 1818. Kevin Spacey has been the artistic director there since 2003. The current production, written by the late Terence Rattigan in 1976, is a slightly altered account of a genuine 1935 crime. It’s about sexual repression, the wages of lust, classism, the inordinate power of youth, and media sensationalism. The protagonist is a femme fatale, Alma, whose much older and richer husband is murdered by her much younger and poorer lover. She’s accused of complicity.

Anne-Marie Duff (John Lennon’s manic mom in Nowhere Boy) effectively inhabits this key role, supported by other stellar thespians, particularly Nicholas Jones as Alma’s defense attorney. At trial, the jury foreperson is the puritanical Edith (Niamh Cusack), in the process of divorcing her philandering husband and therefore initially biased in favor of the prosecution. My chief complaint about Cause Celebre is the darkness of its set, lighting and most of the costumes. Granted the story takes place in the bleak era between the Great Depression and World War II, but without brighter visuals the mise-en-scene seems to be swallowed whole by the cavernous stage of the enormous Old Vic.

Conti, Walter, Schiff and Cohen in “Smash!”
Theater, or theatre, itself was the subject matter of my sixth venture into London’s fabled dramaturgy: Smash! The best thing about this lighthearted romp is Richard Schiff (The West Wing), perfect as an egoistical curmudgeon of a composer working on a new musical along with an equally neurotic crew. Their quirks? The first-time writer (an annoying Natalie Walter) is insecure, the director (Cameron Blakely) much too smug, the lyricist (Josh Cohen) obsessed with erotic fantasies, and the producer (Tom Conti of Shirley Valentine fame, chewing the scenery with charm) a whimsical old coot trying to please everybody.

The show about putting on a show is a dated effort penned by Jack Rosenthal, whose Bar Mitzvah Boy was a 1981 flop that endured much of the same craziness depicted in Smash! It’s an acerbic, mildly amusing two hours at the vintage 150-seat Menier Chocolate Factory, which began manufacturing sweets in 1870 but now is busy entertaining the masses – including ardent Anglophiles like me.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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