City Paper is not for tourists
David Hare is among theater’s most reliably lyrical lefties, constantly outraged about the structures and strictures of the society we’ve built for ourselves, mourning not just the consistency with which we go along to get along but the costs those endless compromises exact from the core of who we are; his heroes and heroines buck systems large and small, old and new, all too often aware that the bucking will change them more than the codes they’re challenging. In Plenty, an elegant examination of wartime idealism and the crass peacetime politicking that inevitably follows, he pits two enthusiastic individualists against the most rigid kind of Establishment. Guess, won’t you, who wins.
Lively, quick, impatient with the proprieties of life in postwar London, Susan Traherne (Megan West) has lived for decades on the lingering charge she got from a wartime stint as a covert agent in occupied France. We meet her just as she decides to let go of the end of her rope: It’s 1962, Easter weekend (don’t think Hare isn’t hinting at resurrections and sacrifices both), and she’s carrying a suitcase out of the too-grand house in which her diplomat husband, Raymond Brock (Paul Morella), lies in a drunken, druggy stupor after what will eventually be revealed as a particularly cataclysmic episode in a marriage that’s seen more than its share.
A few lines of cryptic dialogue, a scene change, and suddenly we’re in the French countryside circa 1943, getting a taste of the excitement that will, come peacetime, leave Susan feeling dreadfully hollow. Waiting for a supply drop in the darkness of a winter night, she’s thrown unexpectedly together with an agent she’ll never know except as Codename Lazar, and their brief connection leaves an aftertaste of intensity she’ll spend a lifetime trying to recapture. The quest will take her well past the boundaries of polite society, through more than a few men and at least one major emotional crisis, to Iran and back with the man who thinks he sees a soul mate and tries to steady herand not necessarily in that order.
The play’s conceitsthe fragmented timeline chief among themprobably seem less novel now than they did at its 1978 premiere, but Plenty resonates still. Its staying power is in the way it charts the two very different courses its protagonists travel in pursuit of their own destruction. Susan’s is the more tormented; she goes not-so-quietly mad as she awakens, with each new reach for something vivid, to the banality and bankruptcy of the culture she’s risked her life for. She’s a Brit, yes, but her crisis might be that of a Vietnam-era American twigging to the realities of life in the age of “military-industrial” and other such hyphenates.
Raymond’s is the quieter capitulation; once as impatient as his wife with the oppressive conformity of the British Foreign Office and the larger society it represents, he gives in ever so gradually to the bland bureaucracy he once despised. His is a more commonplace tragedy, but his bitter self-awareness makes it no less compelling. And as he and Susan stagger their way through the privations and plenty of two peacetime decades, Hare makes his bleak point in the gulf that widens inexorably between them: In a world of empire-builders, nobody changes the system from insideand nobody survives outside it.
Jim Petosa’s self-consciously moody production for the Potomac Theatre Project at Olney Theatre Center gets the seriousness of Hare’s ideas across pretty clearly, to be sureits shadowy visuals and mournful sound design cue the audience that profound concerns are in play, and there’s more than a little mystery, even menace, about the black-shrouded stagehands who glide about moving (and even serving as) the scenery.
But the solemnity of it all saps the life from the play as surely as the polite rituals of diplomacy drain the characters’ spirits. Hare has written that Plenty demands briskness above all, and crisp Englishness throughout above that, but PTP’s staging advances with all the haste of an entailed inheritance, and the only genuinely convincing Anglomorphs on stage are James Slaughter as a crusty old ambassador, an old-school sort who falls on his sword over the Suez Canal debacle, and Robert John Metcalf as the kind of bureaucrat who can say impossibly brutal things through the blandest of smiles. (They’re gems, though.)
Lee Mikeska Gardner adds occasional punch as a onetime bohemian, a free-love-and-wanton-lust-er who mellows over the course of the play’s time frame into a mildly transgressive middle-class history teacher involved in the dutiful execution of a charity appeal. Tyson Lien overemotes as the elusive Lazar, though his choices are more or less in keeping with the heightened mood Petosa calls for throughout the play. Morella does decent enough work as Raymond, though his clipped delivery leaves him ultimately less sympathetic than might be ideal. Still, he’s impressive once Hare comes around again to that climactic Easter day; his contributions give the scene an energy the production as a whole lacks.
West, youngish and seemingly green, cuts an elegant figure in Franklin Labovitz’s cuttingly chic ensembles, which extend to sleek black cocktail dresses, sensual mink capes, and severe jackets trimmed with what might be sable. But even allowing for her youth, her Susan feels less like a coherent characterization than a collection of studied gestures and over-thought line readings. The result, inevitably, is a tragic heroine whose tragedy isn’t terribly movingwhich, for Hare fans, will be plenty disappointing. CP