Susan Traherne, the heroine of David Hare’s 1978 drama Plenty, is hard to love. She has a tendency to pop off on matters of social and political delicacy, an inconvenient trait for the wife of a British diplomat in the years following World War II. She exudes disappointment in a proscribed life with a weak man, neither of which can ever live up to the excitement and promise she felt as a courier in the Resistance during the war.
That disappointment has driven her to profligacy and madness. I had forgotten until the revival that has opened at the Public Theater — where the play was introduced to New York audiences in 1982 before moving to Broadway — how perilously close Susan comes to losing our sympathy. Like so many smart, gifted people whose lives are defined by failure, she leaves a trail of human wreckage in the wake of her ineluctable misery.
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Rachel Weisz, currently starring as Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt in Denial (screenplay by Hare) has the challenge not only of making Susan more than a bonkers harridan, but of doing so in the shadow Kate Nelligan, who created the role in London and New York, and Meryl Streep, who played her in Fred Schepisi’s 1985 film. Neither Weisz nor her director David Leveaux meets that challenge in this revival, which in both her character and in the sense of overall emotional impact is somewhat chilly. Last seen in a Broadway revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal staged by Mike Nichols, Weisz is an actor whose skills include warmth and openness even when the women she’s playing are not (as in her recent film, Complete Unknown, and in The Constant Gardner, for which she won an Oscar).
Plenty begins at the end of the story (like Betrayal, oddly enough) before quickly flashing back to its beginning. Susan is turning over her flat to her best friend Alice (Emily Bergl) as her husband Raymond (Corey Stoll) lies drugged and naked on the floor. Instantly the scene shifts to the French countryside in 1943, where Susan in the dark of night encounters a British comrade, Codename Lazar (Ken Barnett) while awaiting a small-arms drop. The risk is high; German troops are certainly nearby.
The connection they make is at once palpable and ephemeral, as is clear in the next scene, four years later. At the British embassy in Brussells, mid-level diplomat Raymond Brock (Stoll) introduces Susan to the Ambassador, ironically named Darwin (Byron Jennings), for help arranging the return of a body to London. Darwin is told it is her husband; Brock knows the situation is more delicate; the man was Susan’s married lover, another former fighter from the war. Susan eventually settles into marriage with Brock as Darwin carries on stiff-upper-lipidly waving the flag for the shrinking empire.
Hare’s gift for interweaving personal and political events was evident from the outset, in this play that takes as its pivot the 1956 Suez disaster that resulted in the humiliation of Prime Minister Anthony Eden and the confirmation of the U.S. and Russia as the ruling global powers. That leaves Darwin scandalized (Jennings, a great actor, has never been better than he is here, expressing horror and personal shame as much over having been deceived in the Suez matter as in the fiasco itself) and Brock consigned to irrelevance.
Susan ends up in a sexless marriage and a job she can’t stand. She takes lovers, tries to conceive a child by one (the terrific LeRoy McClain), and even has a rendez-vous with Lazar. But the war’s end and its promise of plenty has proven to be as illusory as peace itself.
Leveaux seems in touch with none of this; instead of a textured reading, the production glosses the content and is as chilly Mike Britton’s set, a series of walls that clumsily reconfigure to suggest different locales, lit somewhat mercilessly by David Weiner. Stoll is unable to convey Brock’s sullen mediocrity (though his unaccountable devotion to Susan despite her emotional savagery comes through).
Least well served is Weisz. Her high-pitched, rapid-fire line readings conspire to keep Susan from getting under our skin. The final scene, returning us to Susan’s sun-drenched hillside encounter with a French farmer at the war’s end, should be devastating, exposing how thoroughly her life-force optimism would be fractured into a thousand shards of disappointment. And yet I left the theater not so much emotionally wrung out as merely shaking my head, wishing she’d just snap out of it.
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