November 16, 2016

"Plenty" Isn't Nearly Enough

Casting, they say, is half the job of putting on a successful play. In the case of Plenty, the revival of the David Hare drama that is running at The Public Theater through Dec. 1, the miscasting of the two ledes has thrown the entire production off-balance.

Like most theatergoers who saw the original 1982 production that also played at the Public and then moved to Broadway the next year, I was blown away by both the play and its performances.

Hare's drama is a gimlet-eyed metaphor for the decline of the British Empire after World War II told through the experience of a British woman named Susan, who slowly comes apart when her post-war life fails to equal the glories of her work supporting the French Resistance.

Susan was played by Kate Nelligan, whose all-nerves-exposed performance is still one of the best I've ever seen. As Susan grew impatient with the world around her, Nelligan became a woman increasingly volatile, at times tottering on the fevered brink of hysteria and at other moments, lashing out with chilling cruelty. You didn't know if you wanted to hug her or throttle her but you couldn't resist being fascinated by her.

I had thought that Rachel Weisz, the Oscar and Olivier awards-winning actress who has successfully burrowed into such fraught women as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire and Hester Collyer in Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea, would make a great Susan.

But Weisz, under David Leveaux's listless direction, seemed unsure of how to play the role the night my husband K and I saw the show. Her Susan was far too confident at times, as though she could brush off annoyances with the flick of her hand. But at moments, she displayed far too little of the vulnerability that makes the character so truly tragic.

Corey Stoll was even less convincing as Susan's husband Raymond, a dull diplomat who is besotted by her beauty and brilliance even when she begins to undermine his career.

The great Edward Hermann brought an endearing gawkiness to the role when he played it and Charles Dance gave it an air of upper-class fecklessness in the movie opposite Meryl Streep. But Stoll, who'd struck me as an odd choice right from the start, plays Raymond as such a hapless frat boy that it's hard to care how Susan treats him.

The only one who truly hits the mark is Byron Jennings who plays Raymond's mentor with just the right existential fatigue that you'd expect from someone watching an empire slip away.

The scenes in Plenty unfold out of chronological sequence and so the plays ends on the last day of the war when all possibilities lie ahead of Susan. Her final line almost brought me to tears the first time I saw the show. But this time, I just shrugged.

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