by Margret Echeverria
Plenty, now at the Public Theater, is the result of a recipe cooked right from the perfect ingredients of casting by Jordan Thaler and Heidi Griffiths as well as the direction of David Leveaux. Yes, yes; this is a play by David Hare, and it is well . . . very very British. His text is so precisely pronounced that even the most passionate of speeches seem less lived in by the actors speaking them . . . or . . . wait a minute! Something genius is happening here. Come along with me on this for a minute.
We start nearly at the end with the unconscious naked figure of Raymond Brock (Corey Stoll) lying front and center bleeding, while his wife, Susan Traherne (Rachel Weisz) and her opportunistic friend, Alice Park (Emily Bergl), look over him un-concerned for his well-being and make a real estate deal. The house we are in – represented by three very high, nearly bare walls at angles commanded by set designer, Mike Britton and lit by David Weiner, mimicking the troubled grooves and barriers of Susan’s mind – will be left by Susan to the care of Alice as Susan is leaving and starting over. Raymond be damned. As the giant walls pivot and expand the space, we are taken to the beginning.
We see young Susan in action as a courier during the Second World War. She is alone at night in a field in France waiting for a drop, but what parachutes in is an Englishman, Codename Lazar (Ken Barnett). Uncertain about what they should do, as both their missions are clearly wrecked, Barnett and Weisz create a subtle sexy humor in the middle of a crazy dangerous situation. Did I say crazy? There is a theory that when the insane are confronted with insane situations, they become sane. Remember this; it is important later. Weisz is physically rigid in the beginning of the scene, insisting on rules of protocol; to not even look at the stranger so as not to compromise her mission with the memory of his face. But then, very suddenly, Weisz’ body folds into Barnett; she is overcome by the very likely possibility of her own death and the loneliness of her service. How intoxicating! What’s left to do but break protocol and spend a few hours in each other’s arms recalling a softer part of their humanity? But Weisz and Barnett keep a degree of chill between them. This lack of surrender is frustrating.
When the war ends, Susan is left bored and without purpose. Her painful nostalgia for the days of the war are endearing to her eccentric friend, Alice. In Susan’s sparsely furnished flat, Weisz and Bergl pull the threads of tension tightly in opposite directions due to their characters’ disconnection from the present. Alice wants a brighter future without real responsibility. She fancies herself a free-spirited artist (a con artist, really). Susan longs for the burdensome responsibilities of her past. If only there were some secret dangerous activity for her.
Well, why not have an affair in a hotel in Brussels? We never see Tony Radley, but apparently he is not in the shape he once was, when they met during the war, as he collapses in the hotel lobby dead with a heart attack. Susan comes alive at the British Embassy, taking on the identity of Mrs. Radley, fooling the ambassador, Sir Leonard Darwin (Byron Jennings), into making arrangements to transport the body home at “His Majesty’s government expense,” getting the ambassador’s assistant, Raymond Brock (Stoll) (whom we saw bleeding in the future) to call the real Mrs. Radley in England to inform her of her husband’s death and lie about the circumstances. Stoll, Jennings and Weisz are positively edible in this scene. So adorable are they, hilarious with death humor as only the British can express it, wracked with the weight and majesty of being English – you know, expressing fear, attraction, mortification, exasperation in the most polite way possible – that, if the scene had not ended with the glowing Weisz and stammering Stoll beginning to disrobe in anticipation of devouring one another, I believe several of us may have stormed the stage to eat them all up ourselves. Ah, madness!
As the walls circle around themselves, landing at peculiar angles and transporting us through this story in and out of the past, we see how Susan’s madness increases with time, becoming less charming and rather more devastating to those around her. Of course, she goes into advertising – it suits her need to make excitement out of the nothing that plagues her. She asks someone she hardly knows, Mick (Leroy McClain), to father her child. They spend eighteen months trying without success before she suddenly cuts him off without explanation. McClain is so raw as he bursts into Susan’s apartment and demands from Weisz a dignified answer for his abandonment. His pain is unbearable, yet she doesn’t acknowledge it. She clearly blames him for the pain of her own disappointment even as the words she speaks say she does not. McClain breaks your heart in just a few pages and, hold on to your seat, his character is shot for it.
When Susan marries Raymond Brock, she becomes the wife of a diplomat. Her madness requires more excitement than this so she stirs up trouble bringing everyone around her to ruin. Even Sir Darwin, seeking comfort in the Brock home after a diplomatic disaster on his watch, is crushed by Susan’s accusatory diatribe in a matter of minutes. Richly expressive bystanders to the terribly embarrassing moment are visiting dignitaries from Burma, Monsieur Aung and Madame Aung (Pun Bandhu and Ann Sanders). I wanted to invite the couple out for a drink and comfortingly pat their shoulders afterwards. Weisz delivers a penultimate breakdown in her sanity here with such a fury that all veils are torn off of the shame of anyone in the room. Anyone except Alice, the only one who is unaffected by the chaos and uses it to advance her own purposes. Raymond does finally scream and Darwin makes a very proper and hasty exit. When we are shortly witness to the aftermath of Darwin’s funeral, we wonder if his shame killed him. Jennings is a wonderfully tortured soul in this play reminding us that diplomacy is an art form very hard on the human beings who practice it.
Susan’s ultimate breakdown leads to Raymond bleeding – not fatally – and the ultimate separation. After a tryst with Codename Lazar in Blackpool of all places, in which he seeks intimacy and she can’t be in the present at all, Susan finds herself on a beach in France. Happiness and peace will forever elude her.
So, here is the genius: At first, we may be frustrated by the underlying disconnection the actors sustain as the text doesn’t seem to really call for it. But as the story unfolds, we see that the chill that runs through it is a comment on the effects of war itself. We cannot feel empathy too deeply as we engage in war because this would lose us the war. This is why someone as mad as Susan was very happy to be at war; her inability to surrender to her humanity was very useful then. After the devastation, we have to rebuild, reconnect, empathize, make friends with the enemy while only looking forward because the past is too painful. To an alien, this is a totally insane change in behavior. To an insane human being, the adjustment is utterly impossible. Susan craves the “fun” of war: The ultimate disconnect from our humanity. It’s a mental illness. Plenty is crazy beauty in these ashes. Go see it.
Plenty – Written by David Hare; Directed by David Leveaux
WITH Emily Bergl (Alice Park), Rachel Weisz (Susan Traherne), Corey Stoll (Raymond Brock), Ken Barnett (Codename Lazar), Benjamin Thys (Frenchman), Byron Jennings (Leonard Darwin), LeRoy McClain (Mick), Dani de Waal (Louise), Pun Bandhu (M. Aung), Ann Sanders (Mme. Aung), Liesel Allen Yeager (Dorcas Frey), Tim Nicolai (John Begley), Paul Niebanck (Sir Andrew Charleson), Mike Ivason (Another Frenchman), Julian Sands (Interviewer), Priest (Mike Iveson).
Set, Mike Britton; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, David Weiner; original music and sound, David van Tieghem; production stage manager, James Latus.
The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. NY, NY 10003 212.967.7555 PublicTheater.org Through December 1. Running time 2 hours 30 minutes.