Written by David Hare; directed by David Leveaux
Performances through December 1, 2016
The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY
|Rachel Weisz and Byron Jennings in Plenty (photo: Joan Marcus)|
One of our most literate and provocative playwrights, David Hare has never shied from merging the personal with the political. Perhaps none of his plays makes that as explicit as Plenty, the 1978 drama that introduced what might be his most complicated protagonist—I hesitate to say heroine—Susan Traherne, a young British woman who, returning home following World War II (as part of the French Resistance, she seemingly found her calling to make a difference in the world), finds that the post-war years leave her unmoored and disaffected.
The original production of Plenty (which came to New York in 1982) starred Kate Nelligan, by all accounts a splendid Susan. I saw Fred Schepisi’s handsomely mounted 1985 film adaptation with a steely but polished Meryl Streep in the lead, then completely forgot that I saw Cate Blanchett’s Susan in a 1999 London West End staging. A new New York production by David Leveaux lays bare what’s wrong with the play—Susan herself.
Hare’s drama opens in 1962, introducing Susan, her best friend Alice Parks and Susan’s husband Raymond Brock, who is lying naked and unconscious on the floor: an unexplained occurrence that announces the play’s foggy atmosphere of disconnect. We then jump back to a field in France in 1943—as Susan meets a fellow Brit, Lazar, who’s also aiding the Resistance—then proceed chronologically through scenes that show Susan making fateful decisions affecting her post-war life.
For the final scene, Hare returns to halcyon France in 1944: a luminous Susan sits in an open field and says her famous final line, “There will be days and days and days like this,” which we know—thanks to Hare’s blatant dramatizing—is a delusion. He does write dazzlingly distinctive dialogue for Susan, Brock, Alice, Lazar, and the unfortunately named Leonard Darwin, ambassador who breaks with British protocol over the Suez Canal fiasco. Hare’s insights into politics informing everyday lives are second to none.
But Plenty never makes the case that Susan is worth following through the years. A neurotic idealist in a world of hard realities, she makes foolish decisions—like marrying diplomat Brock, the opposite kind of life she wants, notwithstanding he helped her out—that seem made more for dramatic irony than plausible characterization. Another is her decision to have a baby with no strings attached: she gets an acquaintance, working-class Mick, to be the father, but after 18 months of shooting blanks, she unceremoniously dumps him as no longer being worthy of being her would-be baby daddy, and he explodes with righteous anger over her manipulation. Well, duh.
David Leveaux’s terse staging can’t thaw the chilliness in Hare’s script and Susan’s character, and Mike Britton’s sleek set, comprising three movable walls and a rotating stage, ably moves through the play’s dozen scenes without clearly defining them. Similarly, the performers are a mixed bag: Byron Jennings is a one-note Darwin, ditto Ken Barnett’s Lazar, while Emily Bergl’s Alice is sweetly endearing and Corey Stoll is a persuasive Brock.
Rachel Weisz makes the most of her commanding onstage presence to give Susan’s fuzzy psychology a semblance of reality, which keeps her plight interesting if only intermittently involving. Plenty ends up being as much a mirage as the future its elusive protagonist envisions.