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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 23, 2016

Corey Stoll and Rachel Weisz
Photo by Joan Marcus

Her insanity may be unforgivable, but it's at least understandable. Once we all come to the conclusion that life doesn't unfold the way we know it should, we experience it, and either succumb to it or become stronger as a result. David Hare's haunting play Plenty is a chronicle of Susan Traherne who, against theatrical odds, falls into the former category—and falls hard. A veteran (of sorts) of World War II, she crusades for freedom and prosperity only to find exactly those things painfully elusive in the society her efforts helped create, and that coping with the loss of the idealism that drove her is more than her constitution can bear.

David Leveaux's new revival of Plenty, which just opened at The Public Theater's Newman Theater (where the original New York production, under Hare's direction, bowed in 1982), focuses intently on the swirling dream-reality through which Susan (Rachel Weisz) moves across some 20 years. Mike Britton's set relies on revolving walls and unanticipated space, with lighting designer David Weiner outlining and highlighting pockets of lucidity in the form of chairs, couches, and so on. And an existence that, in its earliest stages, is firm and familiar, degrades into disorder as Susan discovers just what the limitations of dreams and ambitions truly are.

It's an apt visual metaphor for a play that's necessarily disorienting, unmooring you from linear concepts of time and location, as it follows Susan through her various defining tragedies. These range from enduring and cleaning up after the death of her lover to meeting and bonding with the new man named Raymond Brock (Corey Stoll) who will be the source of her most notable post-war moments and her greatest hardships to a disastrous diplomatic dinner party and beyond. We similarly see the wide-angle take on the same subject, as, coincident with this, the British Empire itself stumbles, crumbles, and falls in a style akin to Susan's, and not always for particularly different reasons.

The commonality between the events surrounding Susan and those signaling a great, more unsettling change for the population at large is the expectation—often warranted—that better things are possible than those average people dream about, provided they embrace a view broader than the one just before their faces. How Susan misses, yet still falls prey to, the realities just before her own is perhaps Hare's deftest trick here. And it's one that's revealed piece by piece during the two-and-a-half-hour playing time, and finds its finished expression only in the final seconds, as we witness alongside Susan an ironically boundless future ready for the taking.

Powerful stuff, this, and not material that's been appreciably dulled by the passage of years that's made many of the specific concerns and eras foreign to many of us in a way they couldn't have been in 1982 (or 1978, when the play premiered in London). You need look no further than our current vituperative presidential election, with its festering anguish and seething betrayal on all sides, to see that our own inheritance is being squandered and dishonored, too. Hare reminds us, all too succinctly, that It's rarely long after winning the fruits that you forget what you were fighting for and wage new battles that seem to do little but erase your previous gains.

If there's a fine accord between the script and production, which Leveaux weights a hair self-consciously but nonetheless moves with agility and grace, Weisz does not provide them the consistently unshakable emotional core they demand. She's excellent in the chronologically earliest scenes, when Susan is at her most energetic and unspoiled in pursuing her goals; she lets us see how admirably Susan weathers her disappointments and rebuffs, yet also erodes ever so slightly around the edges. Weisz makes clear from her portrayal that the extinguishing of Susan's soul happened gradually, and that, at least at the outset, there was no conflict at all between who she was and who she believed she could be.

Weisz is much less convincing, however, when those walls collapse, and we at last glimpse the hollowed-out woman beneath. Her most searing outbursts (at worst) and miscommunications (at best) do not match up with the Susan we've come to know; they feel so unhinged, in fact, that it's easier than it ought to be to write them off as simple imbalances of chemistry. If Susan's madness does not track directly from what's come before, many scenes, almost all of them in the second act, leave you sympathizing with the accusers rather than the accused, and robbing Hare's writing of its deepest incisiveness and commentary.

The rest of the cast is much more effective, especially Stoll, who paints his own harrowing portrait of a nameless functionary in a contrasting sort of slow-motion dissolve. (You could claim that Raymond is the avatar of the bigger problems that are pressing down on the more microscopic Susan, and not be far off.) But Emily Bergl as a free-spirited friend who succeeds in reinvention where Susan so frequently fails, Byron Jennings as a wishy-washy bureaucrat and symbol of all that's wrong higher up in the food chain, Paul Niebanck as a more sinister spin on that idea, LeRoy McClain as a victim of Susan's misplaced generosity, and Ken Barnett as a ship-in-the-night figure of uncertain motives are nearly as good.

The portrait they and the rest of the cast paint of a slow-burn crisis in the offing is one that's all too recognizable in the tumultuous mid 20th century, today, or at practically any other time in our history. Though the point would be hammered home clearer with a Susan more capable of anchoring the strikes, Hare's play thrills and unnerves yet for showing us how all-consuming darkness can develop from humanity's brightest accomplishments. We may not always make the best choices, but the options are there, as is the potential for choosing plenty even when we're usually perfectly happy to settle for much, much less.

Through December 1
Public Theater - The Newman Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
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