When is Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service a good premise for a play? If there is a compelling argument out there, David Leveaux’s revival of David Hare’s Plenty doesn’t make it. It’s true that the play’s original production, directed by Hare and starring Kate Nelligan, hauled in acclaim and won Best Foreign Play from the New York Drama Critics Circle in 1983. So it’s also possible that this play about the refusal of a former Special Operations agent to settle for the roles prescribed to her in post-war Britain could still have relevance for American audiences today, with original staging, interesting direction and an exceptional cast. Watching the tedious production that opened at The Public Theater this week, however, I had to wonder: could it, after all?
Plenty’s intrigue and characters are indissociable from their context, which is the period of European reconstruction intersected by Britain’s humiliation in the Suez Crisis and the loss of its colonial possessions in Burma. This year is the 60th anniversary of Suez, a failed military and diplomatic mission that figures much larger in UK history than in US history, as it implicated the British Prime MInister in unlawful activities and finished with his smack-down by an unsympathetic President Eisenhower. In fact, The Independent reported only yesterday that The National Theatre will be organizing a “Staging Suez” event to look at the significance of that diplomatic incident, as seen through the lens of British theater. That might explain Leveaux’s motivations for reviving Plenty but it’s an unimaginative raison d’être for doing so in the US.
As for the production itself, it isn’t much more successful than the events it relates, even though it carries the star power brought by Rachel Weisz. Mike Britton uses a rotating set of high-walled dais that sweep across the set at each scene change, creating an impression of walls closing in on the characters; the metaphor is hardly original but is perhaps the most dramatic aspect of the staging, as the individual decors feel two-dimensional and the troupe never manages to add depth. Weisz is left to fill in the emotional void but her Susan Traherne borders on the hysterical, gasping between lines barked in strident tones and barreling across the stage in fits of pique. Worse, she never makes us feel what her dilemma, or her fight, really is. Cast members Ken Barnett as Susan’s comrade in arms Lazar, and Corey Stoll as the husband whose diplomatic career she ruins are sexless male rivals for her love; the pivotal scene in which Susan and Lazar meet, which ought to give the rest of the action impetus and meaning, has as much spark as Lazar’s slowly deflating parachute.
I was surprised to see Mike Iveson cast in the play’s smallest role, as a Norman farmer, and made to act an embarrassingly caricatural “Fwrench” paysan. Iveson is a smart actor whose downtown credentials include The Wooster Group, Elevator Repair Service and his own original work. This tiny example of Leveaux keeping doggedly to convention is indicative of his direction overall. A more glaring fault is the never elucidated relationship between Susan and her friend and roommate Alice, played chastely by Emily Bergl. If there was ever a production to flesh out the lesbian potential of Susan and Alice’s relationship, it would have to be this revival in New York, and it would have given American audiences something to ruminate besides the dull hallways of British bureaucracy and an historical event with little to no resonance here.
Suez is Plenty’s Waterloo; it represents the climax of Susan’s narrative arc and serves as a metaphor for both the decline of British influence and the break-up of Susan’s marriage and emotional state. But as forgotten as it is for American audiences, it makes a neatly appropriate allusion for this forgettable production.