Today in small personal accomplishments: I moved Plenty from my “Plays I’ve Only Seen the Movie Of” file to my “Plays I’m Glad to Have Finally Seen” file. First performed at the Public Theater in 1982, David Hare’s drama picked up four Tony nominations in its subsequent run on Broadway in early 1983, including two for stars Kate Nelligan and Edward Herrmann. I saw the disappointing 1985 film version, with Meryl Streep in one of her less successful “accent” parts, overshadowed by the release later that year of Out of Africa.
Part of my frustration with the adaptation was that there didn’t seem to be much of a movie in the material, though Hare is said to have rewritten it substantially. Viewing this first New York revival, which opens tonight (again at the Public), I see I was right–Plenty is, through and through, a play of ideas and concepts that don’t easily translate beyond the footlights. But it’s not the most memorable of plays, either, despite its esteemed reputation. What it has is a mercurial lead character given a memorable central performance, one embodying the gradual decline of post-World War II England–Nelligan’s, which by all accounts was a “once seen, never forgotten” portrayal.
Oscar winner Rachel Weisz, no stranger to the stage, is up to the challenge, yet doesn’t quite reach the high bar. Susan Traherne is a complex, messy figure, first seen tending to her prone, out-of-it husband, Raymond (Corey Stoll), a diplomat whose career has stalled. In the glory years of her youth, Susan was a Special Operations Courier (SOE) in Nazi-occupied France, swept up in spy games that once enmeshed her with a dashing agent, “Codename Lazar.” But this one-time Jane Bond has taken Britain’s austerity years hard, and life with the dutiful, duty-bound Raymond plods. Seeing through promises of “plenty” following the war, Susan descends into depression and behavior unbecoming of a diplomat’s wife. Her collapse is mirrored in England’s embarrassing role in the Suez Crisis in 1956, which has repercussions for a spiky, senior-level acquaintance, Leonard Darwin (Byron Jennings). Susan’s downward trajectory, which includes paying for an abortion for a friend’s daughter as she herself fails to conceive, worsens in the second act, which intersperses moments from more hopeful times.
Hare based Plenty on a statistic that showed that 75 percent of all women in the SOE divorced their spouses in the postwar era. There’s a bit of Ibsen and A Doll’s House in the play, though Susan’s “escape” inward, a constant railing at a failed society that lays waste to her marriage and sanity, is ultimately self-defeating. Physically, Weisz is a superb choice for Susan; she has exactly the right touch of enigma in her features, which served her exceedingly well in the Off Broadway play and film of Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things (2001). Psychically, she’s off. She plays all her big scenes at the same, repetitive pitch, rising to crescendos of rage, then falling off, then rising again in the same, unengaging way. I can only assume that Nelligan found some quicksilver way to do what defeated her and Streep. Weisz isn’t bad in the role, she just doesn’t nail as it should for it to work as fully as it might. (Maybe she’ll get there later in the run; this happens.) More successful are Stoll, who gives a shaded, sympathetic performance as the long-suffering Raymond; Jennings, one of the pillars of the New York acting community, as a pillar of the diplomatic corps; and, in the incisive role of a diplomat poobah who fails to fall for one of Susan’s rare charm offensives on her husband’s behalf, Paul Niebanck, a part Ian McKellen also ran with in the movie. (Comic relief from an Asian diplomat and his wife hasn’t aged well, and casting a black actor, LeRoy McClain, as one of Susan’s friends hasn’t updated the show’s optics on race, either.)
David Leveaux directs the spare but somewhat flashy production, dominated by Mike Britton’s LED-fringed turntable set, which moves in an alternate direction at the close. Plenty doesn’t rise as adroitly, though there is value in taking another look at a piece that once galvanized the stage in London and New York.