Monday, August 1, 2011

Lessons in Playwriting: Haunting Julia, Rocket to the Moon and Cause Célèbre

Alan Ayckbourn wrote Haunting Julia in 1994 but it didn’t receive a London premiere until this year – when it opened far from the West End, at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. But it’s a lovely little play, a three-handed ghost story that disseminates some compelling themes through extremely well-drawn characters, and the modest production, directed by Andrew Hall, does the text full justice. The characters are three men, all of whose lives have been deeply affected by their contact with a prodigious undergraduate musician who killed herself several years earlier. Joe Lukin (Christopher Timothy) is her father, whose care for her – he and her mother moved to be closer to her when she began university – drove her to take a flat on her own, which he has now converted into The Julia Lukin Centre, a sort of museum that preserves her old environs and in which, creepily, a recording narrates in the first person a sentimental, air-brushed chronicle of her life. Andy Rollinson (Dominic Hecht) was her boy friend; he found her body. Now he’s a high school music teacher with a family of his own, but he’s kept up his relationship with Joe and his wife. The play begins when Joe guides Andy through the newly constructed centre – it’s clear to us, if not to Joe, that Andy finds the experience profoundly uncomfortable – and then presents what he believes is evidence that her ghost is haunting it. The third character is a psychic named Ken Chase (Richard O’Callaghan) who turns out to be someone who actually knew her, the janitor who lived downstairs from her with his family, whom she often visited.

Timothy, Hecht, and O'Callaghan (Photo Tristram Kenton)
The play is about the loneliness of genius, about the unrelenting demands of the muse, and about the smothering kind of parental love that can both impede adulthood and drive a grown-up child mad. It’s also about moving on from the powerful grip of a first love – that’s Andy’s story. Ayckbourn doesn’t underline any of these ideas; he allows them to leak out through the development of the narrative, which is a series of surprising revelations after each of which we feel we understand the characters, including the absent Julia, a little better. One of my favorites, really just a detail but an inspired one, is Ken’s referring to the dead girl as Julie, because that’s what he and his family used to call her when, divested of her obligations to her music and to her parents, she dropped by to share their ordinary lives.

Haunting Julia is a small-scale achievement but it’s almost perfect. (The conventional ending is a bit of a disappointment.) It offers a useful lesson in how a good playwright works. So, I think, does Clifford Odets’s rarely performed Rocket to the Moon, even though it’s a difficult play and Angus Jackson’s production at the National, which closed early, didn’t even come close to suggesting how it’s supposed to work. Odets wrote the play in 1938, when his association with the Group Theatre in New York, the first American company to adopt the principles of Stanislavskian acting, was just past its peak. Originally an actor training with the troupe, he became a sort of playwright laureate in 1935 when he wrote three plays that they shepherded through tremendously successful productions  Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing! and Paradise LostIn 1937 the Group had its biggest commercial triumph with Odets’s Golden Boy  ironically, since the play poeticized Odets’s personal battle between the forces of art and commerce. (He had already been courted by Hollywood; Golden Boy is about a young man who chooses a prizefighting career over the violin.) Rocket to the Moon followed Golden Boy, and like his earlier plays it’s deeply entrenched in the emotions of the Great Depression.

It’s the story of a young dentist named Ben Stark (Joseph Millson) whose marriage to Belle (Keeley Hawes) is foundering  partly because they lost an infant, a tender subject they manage to skate around most of the time, and partly because of Ben’s unnamed feelings of tentativeness and failure. He becomes involved with his receptionist, Cleo Singer (Jessica Raine), who symbolizes for him all the unfulfilled promises of his youth before his marriage began  to borrow a metaphor from another play about marriage from this era, Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story  to develop dry rot. For Ben’s widowed father-in-law, Prince (Nicholas Woodeson), who also squires Cleo, she represents a last chance at life. In the flailing attempts of these two men of different generations to resuscitate their lives, Odets means us to see not only a universal condition but also a reflection of the paralysis induced in American men by the economic realities of the Depression, which had dragged on for nearly a decade and, despite all the creative legislation of FDR’s presidency, had hit its nadir in 1937. Ben’s office mate, Phil Cooper (Peter Sullivan), has a sick child at home and a dearth of patients and can’t pay his rent; his only consolation is alcohol.

Playwright Clifford Odets
Cleo isn’t very bright and the foolish lies she tells to mask her working-class background and her family’s poverty are transparent, but Odets means her to be so enchanting that the men around her are instantly in thrall to her  a sort of 1930s version of Marilyn Monroe. (She’s also courted by Willy Wax  played by Tim Steed  a sleazy dance director whose office is in the same building.)  In the 1987 television production, which featured John Malkovich as Stark and Eli Wallach as Prince, a young Judy Davis played Cleo, and you understood immediately what drew all three of these men to her. Raine doesn’t have the presence or charm to make Odets’s premise work. The character of Cleo is the linchpin in the play. We have to see that Belle’s high-handed treatment of the girl in the first act stems as much from her anxiety over her marriage as from her worry that Ben is too soft to manage his own office efficiently at a time when no one can be sure of remaining solvent.  And we have to understand her response to Ben’s third-act confession that he’s been sleeping with Cleo  her frantic insistence that if his relationship with Cleo is lust and not love, there’s still a chance of saving their marriage. We have to feel Belle’s acknowledgement that she can’t compete with Cleo as an object of desire  we have to feel her desperation, which comes out of her love for her husband but also out of pragmatism: where would a Depression-era wife with the good luck to have a husband who makes a decent living go if she walked out on him? In Jackson’s production Belle comes across as a nag, except for one poignant moment (easily Hawes’s best) when she hesitates at the door to Ben’s office, overcome with sorrow, while he’s inside talking to Cleo. 

Rocket to the Moon
It was brave of the National Theatre to make a stab at a play so quintessentially American, but the actors seemed to be struggling, not only with their accents but with the meaning of the characters (Sullivan came closest to conveying his) and with the rhythms of the dialogue. The last is a fight that may be unwinnable for any set of actors. Odets was a naturalist, a devotee of Chekhov, but his ambitions sometimes carried him beyond naturalism: he wanted to reproduce the sound of American conversation but he couldn’t suppress his urge for a kind of high-flown speechifying. In Waiting for Lefty, his paean to the undefeatable spirit of the American working class, the characters sound alternately like compelling flesh-and-blood men and women and like leaflets at a socialist rally, though there’s so much fire and invention in some of the rhetoric that, improbably, it’s still improbably stirring. By the time he got around to writing Golden Boy,Odets had outgrown his political agenda, but he’d also finished with the lower-middle and middle-class Jewish characters who inhabit his great family plays, Awake and Sing! and Paradise Lost  the ones he based on his own family  and his writing had become more fanciful and florid. I don’t know if it’s possible even for a gifted American ensemble to make the language in Rocket to the Moon  or Golden Boy  to sound like it comes out of the mouths of real people, even though the characters he wrote for these plays are complex and convincing and the dramatic ideas that hold the texts together are still resonant.

The heroes of the National Theatre Rocket to the Moon were the designers, Anthony Ward (set and costumes) and Mark Henderson (lighting), who created an evocative visual portrait of Manhattan in the depths of the Depression. Ward’s set was cavernous and bleak, with high windows framing the baking summer heat and an unrelenting rainstorm and  an inspired notion  with a long corridor outside Ben’s office door stage right. Exiting actors took a long time to disappear; their clattering heels and darkening figures seemed increasingly sorrowful as they moved toward the wings. Ward was clearly influenced by film noir of the forties and fifties, but he successfully projected those images of anomie and lostness onto the 1930s.  

Anne-Marie Duff in Cause Célèbre
Since 2011 is the centenary of the English playwright Terence Rattigan, London theatergoers have been given the chance to look at several of his plays. Susan Green reviewed Trevor Nunn’s production of Flare Path, one of his first plays, for Critics at Large. While it was performing in the West End, the Old Vic revived his swan song, Cause Célèbre, an account of the scandalous 1935 Rattenbury murder trial. Rattigan tried to dramatize it early in his career but never finished; then, at the end of his life, he wrote a radio play based on the material. (It was broadcast in 1974, with Diana Dors as Alma Rattenbury.) The stage version, which Rattigan and the director Robin Midgley cobbled together out of the radio script and the unfinished playscript while Rattigan was suffering from cancer, opened in 1977 – just four months before Rattigan’s death – with Glynis Johns in the leading role, and it’s been pretty much forgotten since.

In the new production at the Old Vic, beautifully staged by Thea Sharrock, Anne-Marie Duff gives a superb performance as Alma, a middle-aged woman married to a considerably older man (Timothy Carlton). Alma’s eighteen-year-old lover, George Wood (Tommy McDonnell), who works for the Rattenburys as a combination chauffeur and handyman, murders her husband Francis in a jealous rage.  Both paramours are tried for murder, the case against Alma  who is innocent  hinging on her hysterical behavior upon the arrival of the police and on a hastily pulled-together (and later retracted) confession, a desperate and transparent attempt to compensate for her guilt over unwittingly providing the motivation for the unstable Wood’s attack on Francis. The play is an indictment of the sexual mores of a repressed English society, a topic that Rattigan had touched on in The Deep Blue Sea and that, as a gay man in a severely closeted era, he must certainly have felt on a deep level. Alma, we see in flashbacks, loved her husband but wasn’t sexually satisfied by him, and out of his fondness for her and either resignation or apathy he was indulgent of her dalliance with George. The Rattenburys’ relationship is reminiscent of the one we only hear of between Maxine Faulk and her late husband Fred in Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana, the affectionate union of a sensuous woman and an older man who leaves it to other, younger men to give her what she needs.  For Rattigan, it’s precisely the kind of arrangement that English society can’t or refuses to acknowledge. Alma is tried in the press and the popular imagination as a heartless seducer; that the prosecution’s version of events is as implausible as George’s defense (he claims that he acted under the effects of cocaine) is beside the point, since a married woman in her forties so licentious as to take an eighteen-year-old lover is presumed to be no better than a murderess  and as the adult in the relationship she must have held the teenage boy in thrall, because the reverse is inconceivable. Alma’s lawyer, O’Connor (wittily played by Nicholas Jones), can only get her off by underscoring the wantonness of her sexual behavior and getting the jury’s disgust with her out in the open so that he can draw a firm line between it and the issue of her guilt or innocence in Rattenbury’s murder.

Playwright Terence Rattigan
It’s an interesting and intelligent play, though Rattigan hinges a second plot to it that is considerably less effective than his treatment of the Alma Rattenbury material. During voir dire, one of the potential jurors, Edith Davenport (Niamh Cusack, in a fine performance), insists that she can’t be objective because she finds Alma repugnant, and instead of asking the judge (Patrick Godfrey) to release her O’Connor retains her for the jury so that he can use her prejudice against his client during summation. (She even becomes forewoman, which seems to stretch a dramatic point.) Rattigan examines Edith’s family life as a way of exploring the society that is ready to condemn Alma. Edith has separated from her husband John (Simon Chandler) because she can’t forgive him for cheating on her; she presents his indiscretions in melodramatic fashion to their teenage son Tony (Freddie Fox). Yet he only sought other partners because she doesn’t like sex, and though she’s as lonely and unhappy without him as he protests he is without her, she doesn’t have it in her to take him back. When Tony loses his virginity in a brothel and gets an STD, he’s so ashamed and despairing that rather than obtain treatment for it he assumes that his life is permanently blighted and even makes a half-hearted attempt at suicide. It’s his father, not his mother, of whom he finally seeks counsel, eventually choosing to live with John rather than Edith because he can’t fit the reality of his sexual experience in Edith’s Victorian world. The break-up of her family and especially the loss of her son is meant, in the structure of the play, to force Edith to a consciousness of herself that allows her to vote for Alma’s innocence. (Rattigan may also be suggesting that her helplessness when she wants to keep the son she adores with her shows her how much power a young man may exert over an older woman, but the two relationships are so disparate and, placed on a fulcrum against each other, so unevenly balanced that this idea simply floats away.) She does so against the indignant protests of her sister Stella (Lucy Robinson), who insists throughout the play that it’s Edith’s responsibility as jury forewoman to see that Alma doesn’t get off. The scenes Rattigan writes for the two sisters are the least persuasive in the play, and Stella comes off as a harridan. And he didn’t need the Davenport plot to make his case against the Puritanism of English culture between the wars. Evidently he was working out some personal feelings  evidently he got Tony’s story directly from his memories of his own adolescence. They don’t fit easily into the Alma Rattenbury drama.

Cause Célèbre
The production is expert on all levels, including the design elements provided by Hildegard Bechtler (set) and Bruno Poet (lighting). The best reason to see it, however, is Duff, whose portrait of a woman capable of holding simultaneously quite different sorts of feelings for two men is so convincing that it embodies Rattigan’s idea about the shortcomings of a society that can see her only as a monster. Rattigan’s greatest strength as a dramatist may have been the roles he sculpted for actors. There’s the embittered retiring classics master in The Browning Version, played so magnificently by Michael Redgrave and then by Albert Finney in the 1948 and 1994 movie versions. The patrician wife in The Deep Blue Sea who deserts her government-minister husband for a young man in every way undeserving of her was the last great part Vivien Leigh ever got to play on screen, and Blythe Danner resurrected it brilliantly when the Roundabout Theatre revived the work in New York early in the millennium. On another London trip I was lucky enough to see David Suchet in Man and Boy as the charismatic industrialist seeking a relationship with his son when his career is on the verge of collapse. I’d argue that Alma, in this long-forgotten play, also deserves to be included among Rattigan’s most memorable characters.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo SurprisesPlease: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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