Disappointment is the undeniable theme of Plenty, David Hare’s play that is presented in a lukewarm revival at the Public Theater. And that disappointment is not limited to just the characters onstage.
Hare, a playwright known for politically charged work, was inspired to write Plenty after reading that more than 70 percent of the women who served in England’s Special Operations Executives divorced soon after World War II. His play examines the effect of the war through one woman who experiences post-war disillusionment in life, leading to devastating and dangerous consequences.
That woman is played by Rachel Weisz, an Oscar winner who made her Broadway debut in the 2013 revival of Betrayal, a similarly disappointing production. Directed by David Leveaux, Weisz gives a tireless performance in Plenty as Susan Traherne, who, after the conclusion of World War II struggles, and ultimately fails, to find a place in society.
First performed at the Public Theater in 1978, starring Kate Nelligan, Plenty was an admired play, greatly due to Nelligan’s performance as Susan, which offers seemingly endless opportunities for an actress to mine while exploring love, lust, mental illness, professional dissatisfaction and desperation, to name a few. And while Weisz is known as a fine actress – she won an Oscar for The Constant Gardener – her performance as Susan fails to inspire much of anything from the audience other than exhaustion.
That exhaustion is no doubt felt by Wesiz as well; it is no small task to play Susan. Over the course of the play, her life is presented in a series of disjointed scenes that include love affairs, suicide attempts, threats of murder and mental breakdowns.
The audience first meets Susan during the final moments of her story, as her husband lies drugged and naked on the floor and she looks on dispassionately, smoking a cigarette. We then go backwards in time, to Susan’s time in the war and her interactions with a British comrade, Codename Lazar (Ken Barnett), a scene that was especially disappointing in its staging. Visually dull and severely lacking in excitement, it left little impact on the audience and left me wondering if this was the thrill that Susan has been longing for throughout her life after the war.
That life goes on to include marriage to a weak diplomat (Corey Stoll), whose adoration of Susan is inexplicable, especially when her supposed mental illness threatens his position at work with his superior Leonard Darwin (an excellent Byron Jennings), and the Foreign Office bureaucrat Sir Andrew Charleson (Paul Niebanck, who gives a cartoonishly villainous performance).
The devotion of her husband and best friend Alice (a very good Emily Bergl), are also confusing, as are the narrative of Plenty, which is disjointed and difficult to follow. One minute Susan is working in advertising (I think) and threatening a former lover with a gun, and the next moment she’s a wealthy diplomat’s wife wreaking havoc at a dinner party. And while Susan’s character may be written to portray desperation driven to extremes, Wesiz is extremely restrained throughout her performance, and when she is not restrained, she is shrill.
Plenty could be viewed as a feminist work, but the feminist tones of the production feel forced; Susan’s comment that, “I think merely being your husband’s wife is demeaning to women of any integrity” sounds forced and inauthentic to the character and the show. And, despite being first performed in 1978, Plenty does not say the word “abortion,” despite it being a crucial plot point in one scene.
This critic was initially quite excited to see Plenty. It’s not often that roles like Susan’s are seen on popular New York stages, and the play’s history – its widely acclaimed 1978 production and 1985 film starring Meryl Streep – sounded promising. And an examination of how the war affected women is welcome, as it is not often that those stories are seen on the mainstage. But a crucial absence hinders this play; we never see what it is that drives Susan’s self-destruction
The detachment of the play is exemplified in Mike Britton’s set, a sterile series of walls that are repositioned for each scene. This feeling continues through the final scene, when a youthful Susan converses with a French farmer at the conclusion of the war about the possibilities of the future. Having witnessed the ruin of her hope, I should have felt devastated. Instead, I just felt relieved.