To tell the truth, The Truth is a thoroughly delightful evening. The play is hilarious, clever, and insightful. That said, I think I would have admired it much more if it wasn’t also so derivative.
I expect that audiences in New York and Washington will soon have a chance to judge this play for themselves. It is tailor-made for export and for frequent production. It has a small cast and can be done with a simple set. It’s brisk and brief, performed without intermission.
In these respects, and in many of its qualities, it reminded me of another smart and witty play, Yasmina Reza’s Art. Both Art and it, in fact, were written in French with English-language versions by the reliable Christopher Hampton (whose plays include Les Liaisons Dangereuses and whose screenplays include Atonement).
Florian Zeller, who wrote The Truth, has, in fact, been proclaimed to be more successful in Britain than any French playwright since Reza. And he has already made his first Atlantic crossing. His earlier play The Father was on Broadway last season (Frank Langella won the Tony in its lead role) and will be part of Studio Theatre’s upcoming season.
Much of what delights about The Truth are the twists and turns of the plot, and the revelations made by the various characters, so it wouldn’t be cricket to divulge much of what transpires beyond the early moments of the play.
Those early moments find Michel (Alexander Hanson) and Alice (Frances O’Connor) getting out of bed after an amorous afternoon meeting in a hotel room. The site of the assignation, we soon learn, is necessary because Michel is married to Laurence (Tanya Franks) while Alice is married to Paul (Robert Portal). Oh, and Paul is Michel’s best friend.
Michel is the central figure. He is in all of the play’s seven scenes, in each of which he interacts with one of the other three. We in the audience know what he knows about the complicated relationships, and we learn other things about the situation as he does throughout the evening.
Playwright Zeller is 36 and looks about a decade younger, from a picture which accompanies an interview in the programme. (Look, it’s London, so I had to pay extra for the programme. I feel as if it would be wasteful not to use the British spelling with its extra letters.)
In the interview, Zeller admits to Harold Pinter’s having been a “great influence.” It is further revealed that the published version of the play begins with an epigraph from Pinter’s Betrayal. I read this after I saw the play, and it didn’t come as a surprise.
An early plot twist in The Truth comes right out of Betrayal. It is a twist that demonstrates one of the key themes in Pinter’s play, and the newer play bears in on that theme. Knowing Betrayal quite well, I had a sense of watching a tribute play more than an original play.
It felt to me as if Zeller was an apprentice painter, one who has created what is called in the world of art a “detail,” a work that focuses on and enlarges one section of an existing masterpiece. The result here is a work that is replete with perception and wit, but that also prompts a feeling of deja vu.
Sure, Pinter’s play has three characters only, a married couple and the woman’s lover/the man’s best friend. In The Truth, there are two couples, and the play travels a different path after the earlier-referenced twist. For instance, and unlike Betrayal, The Truth concentrates on (and gets much comic mileage out of) the confusing machinations involved in concealing the affair between Michel and Alice.
But the influence of Betrayal persists even in details. In The Truth, an important part of the friendship between the two husbands involves their frequent tennis matches. In Betrayal, the two husbands meet routinely to play squash. In both plays, the tensions and alterations in the men’s relationship plays out on the court as well as off.
Of course, Zeller isn’t the first playwright to evidence influence from another writer. (How many recent American plays echo the work of David Mamet?) Comes to that, he isn’t even the first to evidence influence from Pinter. (The early work of Joe Orton is clearly influenced by Pinter.)
Although the similarities between Betrayal and The Truth go beyond stylistic likeness, but since the resulting play is as satisfying as this is (when judged without reference to its source), the sin can be considered a menial one. Zeller has presented us with a play that will charm audiences far and wide.
As Zeller and his play are in the capable hands of Christopher Hampton, as regards this English language version, so are they in capable hands as regards this first British production.
The production on view in London is by one of the city’s hottest companies, Mernier Chocolate Factory Theatre, which takes its name from the converted space they opened in 2004.
Best known in our country for musical revivals that have transferred to Broadway in recent years (Sunday in the Park with George, La Cage aux Folles, A Little Night Music, the currently-running The Color Purple), the company also produces contemporary and new plays.
The MCF production was such a success that it transferred to Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End, and so I unfortunately was not able to see the show at their home base, which is currently occupied by the American company Fiasco Theater and it’s highly-regarded Into the Woods. (DC audiences saw Fiasco do Two Gentlemen of Verona and Cymbeline at our Folger Theatre not too long ago.)
Lindsay Porter ran the Royal Court Theatre for a while, has worked all over London and beyond, and here guides a terrific cast through a tight production that mines every ounce of the near-farcical humor inherent in the script. I sometimes wished, in fact, that he would have let a few of the more startling revelations breathe a bit more, in order to let us see the characters dealing more actively with the twists with which they had suddenly to contend. But perhaps that approach would undercut the play’s momentum and buoyancy.
The heavy-lifting falls to actor Hanson, who is in a state of near-constant agitation or desperation throughout. By two-thirds of the way into the show, his dress-shirt was soaked. At first, I thought this an effect for a scene that takes place directly after a tennis match. However, the dampness remained through later scenes, so I’m pretty sure it was hard-working-actor sweat.
I hope this doesn’t sound like a back-handed compliment — it is not meant to be back-handed — but here goes. Hanson’s performance stays pretty much in one gear, a high gear. Despite that, though, he finds an impressive amount of variation, and the performance never becomes grating or unsatisfying, even if one could wish for the occasional down-shift.
Because Hanson’s Michel is our window into the confused bundle of relationships, the other three actors have a different challenge in their more limited stage-time. We need to believe them in the moment, when Michel does, while at the same time they need to plant a seed of doubt into the minds of the audience, in a manner that will track with later revelations.
O’Connor is the highest-profile of the cast, having done films such as A.I. Artificial Intelligence and TV such as The Missing, and she makes a perfect Alice, which is the most prominent of the secondary roles in the play. We completely buy everything she does, even a few things that might seem implausible in the hands of a less-skillful actor.
Franks meets a similar challenge, another delicate balance. She manages to keep us feeling sympathetic toward her position in the predicament even as she is also keeping us guessing about what exactly that position is.
Portal has the least to do in the least demanding part, but he does keep the comic elements landing with a deadpan delivery. Interestingly, he also looks so similar to Hanson that I had trouble distinguishing the two when looking at the pictures in my, er, programme.
The transfer of The Truth to Wyndham’s is for a limited run, scheduled to end on Sept. 3rd. (The No Man’s Land revival that played Broadway with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart takes up residence the following Wednesday, so ersatz Pinter will soon be replaced by actual Pinter.)
Therefore, upcoming visitors to London may have missed the chance to see the show. But, as I say, I fully expect it will make its way to these shores soon. You should be able to catch it in NYC before too very long.
You can then wonder which of several likely DC theaters will end up presenting the show first, as I have done. A further parlor game would be to mentally cast with our indigenous D.C. talent the four plum parts, in any number of fun combinations.