Of all the crazed, destructive, female characters that the stage has given us, Susan Traherne may be among the least interesting, at least as performed by Rachel Weisz in the Public Theater revival of Plenty, David Hare’s 1978 play about a woman who served in World War II and never recovered from it.
In a program note, Hare says his purpose in writing Plenty was to help make up for the absence of accounts about women’s war-time military experiences, and to chronicle the hardship they often faced afterwards. But there is only one relatively brief scene of Susan in combat; we see her as a teenage courier putting on a brave front in a nighttime rendezvous in Occupied France with a British secret agent who has just parachuted in. Ten of the 11 remaining scenes take place in living rooms, parlors and offices over the succeeding 20 years. She insults guests at dinner parties, uses and discards a would-be suitor, and generally behaves boorishly, especially towards the man who becomes her husband, Brock (Corey Stoll), a diplomat with the British Foreign Service, whose career her erratic behavior effectively sabotages. We learn that she spends time in a mental hospital.
What she does is often inexplicable; it seems too pat to attribute it all to her war-time experiences. There are enough references to political events (most notably the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956) that it seems apparent that Hare has created Susan not just to present the experience of a female veteran of World War II. He is also using her as a metaphor for the British loss of confidence, purpose and control in the post-war years. “As our influence wanes, as our empire collapses, there is little to believe in,” a diplomat named Carlesson (Paul Niebanck ) says at one point. Even more abstractly, Susan is a stand-in for an entire generation’s loss of idealism.
“We will improve the world,” she says during the war. “Sold out,” she calls herself eight years later, now working in advertising.
Plenty is far more oblique and disjointed than some of Hare’s other work; the scenes feel like shorthand, and are not all in chronological order. The playwright wrote more bluntly and more clearly about politics in Stuff Happens, about American officials’ plunge into the Iraq War; and about individuals whose lives are affected by what’s happening in the world around them in Skylight, which received a stellar production on Broadway last year.
It counts as something of an odd accomplishment by director David Leveaux (who has directed a dozen plays on Broadway over the past three decades, including The Glass Menagerie starring Jessica Lange and the Romeo and Juliet starring Orlando Bloom) that his production of Plenty features a beautiful movie star, foul language, guns and gunshots, actual smoking, even both male and female nudity, and still ends up feeling dull.
This was not the reception reportedly accorded previous versions, such as the 1983 production first at the Public Theater and then on Broadway, which starred Kate Nelligan, and the 1985 movie starring Meryl Streep.
Movie critic Roger Ebert called Streep’s performance one “of great subtlety; it is hard to play an unbalanced, neurotic, self-destructive woman, and do it with such gentleness and charm.” It would be hard for me to describe Weisz’s performance as subtle or gentle – there’s entirely too much shrillness and shouting – and the charm is less the character’s than the natural grace and glamour of the actress, helped along by the varied array of costumes that designer Jess Goldstein has Weisz model for us. Corey Stoll, an American actor whose list of impressive performances includes a terrific turn as the addicted Congressman in Netflix’s House of Cards, seems miscast as the other principal character, the stuffy, repressed British Brock.
Plenty employs 18 actors, a bafflingly large cast for a straight play, some with just a few lines of dialogue. The one clear standout is Byron Jennings as Brock’s proper but tired boss Leonard Darwin (Jennings was most recently seen on Broadway as the boss in She Loves Me.) Emily Bergl is vivid as Susan’s bohemian, promiscuous friend Alice Park.
I’m not sure what it says that, as the play progressed, I most perked up each time there was a scene change, because Mike Britton’s scenic design includes the automated rotation of a wall edged in a really cool blue light.
Plenty is on stage at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street, in the East Village, New York, N.Y. 10003) through December 1, 2016
Tickets and details
Plenty. Written by David Hare. Directed by David Leveaux. Featuring Liesel Allen Yeager (Dorcas), Pun Bandhu (M. Aung), Ken Barnett (Codename Lazar), Emily Bergl (Alice Park), Dani de Waal(Louise), Mike Iveson (Another Frenchman), Byron Jennings (Leonard Darwin),LeRoy McClain (Mick), Tim Nicolai (John Begley), Paul Niebanck (Sir Andrew Charleson),Ann Sanders (Mme. Aung), Julian Sands(Interviewer), Corey Stoll (Raymond Brock),Benjamin Thys (A Frenchman), and Rachel Weisz (Susan Traherne). Scenic design by Mike Britton, costume design by Jess Goldstein, lighting design by David Weiner, original music and sound design by David Van Tieghem, hair and wig design by Leah J. Loukas. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell