Monday, November 28, 2016

Unmemorable Revivals: Plenty and Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Rachel Weisz and Bryon Jennings (background) in Plenty, at New York's Public Theater. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

David Hare’s Plenty, currently receiving its first New York revival at the Public (where it was originally produced in 1982), is the portrait of an Englishwoman named Susan Traherne who experienced the most fulfilling part of her life during World War II, when she was a Special Operatives Executive courier in France. That nothing in her subsequent life has come close to bringing her that kind of satisfaction has made her restless and unhinged. She meets her husband, Raymond Brock, in Brussels in 1947 when he’s working for the Foreign Office there, and he marries her, as much out of kindness as out of love, when she’s at a low ebb in the early fifties; their union barely survives her manic eruptions, one of which forces him to resign his post at the embassy in Iran and derails his career, and it falls apart at last in the early sixties. Plenty is a complicated work with a fascinating subject that only a few other writers have tackled: how do you negotiate the rest of your life after an exciting, romantic period of total engagement that can never be equaled? (One of the characters in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, a one-time RAF flyer, suffers from this kind of letdown, and it’s the fate of the protagonist in Willa Cather’s beautiful 1923 novel One of Ours.) But as is sometimes the case with Hare’s plays, Plenty works better in your head when you’re reflecting on it afterwards than it does in performance. I’m not sure why, exactly: Hare is an unusually intelligent writer and the material is certainly dramatic, but I felt the same detachment from it in the new David Leveaux production, with Rachel Weisz as Susan, as I had when I saw the 1985 movie version, directed by Fred Schepisi, with Meryl Streep in the role.

Streep had a few witty moments in the movie – Hare has made Susan, like most of his characters, literate and articulate – but overall she seemed miscast. In the case of Weisz, the casting seems right, and I have tremendous admiration for her (she gave two of this year’s best film performances, in Denial and in a supporting role in The Light Between Oceans). But her acting feels atypically forced here, as if she were flummoxed by the material and trying too hard to make it coherent. Kate Nelligan starred the first time around, both in London in 1978 and in New York, and her performance is legendary. I wish I’d seen it, because I’m curious to know what could bring the character together: as written, she’s fitful and meandering. Weisz has to play three different meltdown scenes, and only the third feels persuasive. Appearing opposite her is Corey Stoll, a talented actor with some range, but the role of Raymond doesn’t do much for him. He’s a sad sack whose sympathy for Susan is an inadequate substitution for whatever kind of passion she craves, especially since the passion seems to be more existential than sexual. (Raymond reminds me of Henry Miles, the loyal, cuckolded husband Stephen Rea played in The End of the Affair, though unlike Henry he doesn’t have unlimited patience.) Emily Bergl does a nice job with Susan’s bohemian pal Alice, but it’s Byron Jennings, as Leonard Darwin, a senior diplomat – Raymond’s boss in Brussels and subsequently his friend – who walks off with the production. It’s a showpiece part, and Jennings, one of the best character actors on the New York stage for the last couple of decades, kills it, just as John Gielgud did in the movie. Unfortunately, Darwin, whose career unravels as a result of the Suez disaster in 1956, dies during intermission. (Act two opens with his funeral.)

This is a handsome production, with eye-catching period costumes by Jess Goldstein (especially Weisz’s) and dramatic lighting by David Weiner. Mike Britton’s first-rate set consists of three movable walls strikingly lit along the sides and across the width, deco style; for the last scene the hydraulics kick in and the set tips over, away from the audience, transformed into a hill with a supernal blue sky on the cyclorama, to signal the play’s return to the brief hopeful period of Susan’s life – at the conclusion of the war, when she basks in a hard-won peace and predicts, “There will be days and days and days like this.” The ironic-sorrowful note Hare captures here is the one time – I thought when I saw the movie and again when I got to the end of Leveaux’s revival – when the feeling of the play finally reaches beyond the edge of the stage and wraps the audience up.

Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Liev Schreiber underacts amusingly as the Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. But Josie Rourke’s production, imported to Broadway from London’s Donmar Warehouse, is dull – a word I never thought I’d use to describe Christopher Hampton’s brilliant, fully-fleshed-out adaptation of the Laclos novel. I enjoyed the last Broadway version by the Roundabout in 2008, and the Stratford, Ontario revival in 2010, and Stephen Frears’ 1988 movie is one of the endearing delights of its era. How did Rourke manage to drain the life out of this of all plays? I always find Janet McTeer, who plays the Marquise de Merteuil, artificial, but I assumed that some of the supporting players would rise to the occasion; only Mary Beth Piel does, bringing a girlish quality to the part of Valmont’s aunt, Madame de Rosemonde that, mixed with the old lady’s fondness for her reprobate nephew and her insistence on seeing the good in him, is quite charming. Rourke has added a few directorial touches, but I couldn’t make sense of them – such as beginning the show like a ghost story, with flickering candelabras and Merteuil walking through a sheet of plastic hung from a doorway, or the spirited humming of the ensemble as they move around the furniture between scenes, as if they were in a road company of A Little Night Music. I slipped away during intermission.

– 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 Review 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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