Monday, June 3, 2013

The Whips and Walt

James Graham’s This House, screened last month in the NT Live series at the end of its run at London’s National Theatre, focuses on the English Parliament of 1974-1979, when the Labour Party found itself thrust unexpectedly into power in a minority government for a brief interval before Margaret Thatcher took the reins. Graham’s idea is that government is drama and that within the larger theatre of Parliament is a smaller one, the interaction of the whips on both sides who make the deals and fight the battle to retain – or win back – control of the House of Commons. This House takes place mainly in the offices of the majority and minority whips, beginning with the switch-over, when Labour whip Bob Mellish (Phil Daniels) and his chief deputy, Walter Harrison (Philip Glenister), usurp the offices that formerly belonged to Tory whip Humphrey Atkins (Julian Wadham) and his deputy, Jack Weatherill (Charles Edwards). The Labour contingent – which includes one woman in her mid-twenties, Ann Taylor (Lauren O’Neil), who is conscious that she’s crashing a men’s club – greet each other with cheerful surprise and glad-handing jocularity, rough-and-ready working-class battlers who act like they’ve just put one over and managed to sneak into a fancy reception in spite of the fact that their names aren’t on the list at the front gate. The Tories play it cool (noblesse oblige) but among themselves they bitch about the cut-rate furniture in their new digs.

Graham has written a combination of comedy of manners and hard-boiled comedy. The high comedy centers on the Tories, who are cultivated, witty and entitled, the hard-boiled comedy on the Labour politicians, who curse freely and take nothing for granted. These are diametrically opposed kinds of comedy: the first centers on aristocrats, the second on feisty professionals from the working or middle class (who, in this case, refer to their opposite numbers as “aristo-twats”). Mixing them up in this way is colorful and entertaining, and for the first act their exchanges and the raucous atmosphere behind the scenes of the barely-scraping by Labour government are enough to keep the play moving. There’s a non-stop rush of activity. Mellish quits and Michael Cocks (Vincent Franklin) takes over; both sides woo the “odds and sods,” i.e., the minorities (Liberals, Scots, Irish and so forth) whose alliance can bulk up either party and make the difference in an important vote. One Labour fellow fakes his own death by drowning in Miami, then turns up alive to face fraud charges. Brawling breaks out on the floor over one issue and the adversaries retreat with bloody noses. And at the end of act one Big Ben, which looms over Rae Smith’s set just as in real life it looms over the Houses of Parliament, breaks down after an uninterrupted century of mechanical smoothness, and Cocks is obsessed with the symbolic import.

The play begins to disintegrate immediately after intermission, though. The director, Jeremy Herrin, emphasizes the farce straight through, but by the second-act opening, one of several ersatz musical numbers (a rock band sits in residence above the acting area), all the noise and hyperactivity starts to feel tiresome, and you get the feeling that Graham has already said everything he needed to get out. And when, after five years of intense strategizing with their collective dukes up, Labour finally runs out of ways to forestall a no-confidence vote, the play suddenly becomes sentimental. In the end This House expires out of exhaustion.

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, written by Lucas Hnath and directed by Sarah Benson for Soho Rep, is a diverting oddity: a satirical, absurdist take on Disney’s egomania and megalomania. Four actors sit around what looks like a boardroom table and read the roles of Walt (Larry Pine), his brother and business partner Roy (Frank Wood), his daughter (Amanda Quaid) and son-in-law Ron (Brian Sgambati). The daughter doesn’t get a name and we never meet Walt’s wife. The play covers the last few years of Walt’s life, between the time he proposes the idea of making nature documentaries and becomes obsessed with building an autonomous city in Florida (while the board of the Disney corporation wants it to be a replica of Disneyland – which, of course, is what it turns out be) and his death. The major spectacle the play affords is the great Larry Pine (Astrov in Vanya on 42nd Street) as the tyrannical Walt, who takes the smallest objection to his wishes as a sign of betrayal and treats the people around him, including his family, with narcissistic disregard and then vengeful cruelty. Pine gives a masterly performance as a man who’s falling apart physically but holding onto his empire with both fists. The play feels a tad too long even at seventy minutes; Hnath can’t figure out how to end it. But Pine is mesmerizing.

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 is the author of three books:  Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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