Susan Traherne had a terrific war. Just 17 when she was dropped behind enemy lines in Vichy France, she served valiantly as a member of England’s Special Operations Executive, part of a team carrying out harassment and sabotage missions in order to distract and demoralize German forces. The atmosphere of danger there intensified brief encounters into grand passions and reframed selfishness as patriotism to the point that no man, no occupation — and no self, for that matter — could ever afterward measure up. Postwar England was thus for Susan a profound disappointment even beyond its powdered eggs and cardboard shoes. It was a wasteland of lies, hypocrisy, anomie, and drift, not least her own.
Though Susan is fictional, she is representatively epic and tragic. David Hare was prompted to create her as the heroine of his 1978 play Plenty — which opens in an underpowered revival at the Public tonight — after reading that more than 70 percent of the women who served in the S.O.E. divorced soon after the war. Though Susan doesn’t divorce the diplomat she marries “in a moment of weakness,” she certainly leaves him, more than once. In any case, Hare has extrapolated from the failed-marriage statistic to a wider failure. Plenty covers 18 years of Susan’s downhill life, not exactly in order; the opening scene, in which the husband, Brock, lies naked and covered in dried blood on the floor while Susan smokes dispassionately and chats with a friend, takes place near the end of the chronological action. The play, as Hare writes in his recent memoir, The Blue Touch Paper, then “sets out on a long journey to explain” how they all got there. We are thrown back briefly to Susan’s war, then forward through her many bedeviled attempts to find companionship and purpose in a society that was not sufficiently remade by the horrors it endured. In that way, Susan and England are one, and part of Plenty’s immensity and depth derives from the way the protagonist and the country are stand-ins for one another.
The role of Susan is huge even without the burden of that additional symbolic superstructure: She is the central figure in all 12 of the play’s scenes. She connives, has mental breakdowns, attempts suicide, threatens murder, impersonates a Frenchwoman, impulsively gives away Brock’s house to her friend Alice, and turns diplomatic dinner parties into politico-existential crises. (“Nobody will say ‘death-rattle of the ruling class,’” she announces in a beautiful evening gown. “We have stuck our lips together with marron glacé.”) Her dialogue is so sharp you feel that Hare might have cut his fingers typing it. This makes the part hypnotically attractive to a certain kind of actor, and yet it is almost impossibly difficult to play, with its extremity and intermittency. There’s no connective tissue; each new scene is disjoint from the previous one, representing both a point on the continuum of Susan’s devolution and a fresh new hell in a rapidly changing world.
The role’s hugeness demands a corresponding hugeness in the performer, the kind that Kate Nelligan brought to the original London and New York productions, and that Meryl Streep brought to the very fine Fred Schepisi movie. Rachel Weisz, who plays Susan in the current revival, clearly knows this, pushing hard and getting close to the mark, but she lacks the egotistical daring that demands and rewards unwavering attention for even the smallest gestures. It may be odd to add that her rendition of Susan’s craziness lacks charm, but without that you wonder why anyone would find her worth putting up with in the first place. Susan needs to be a glamorous nightmare, and Weisz is only halfway there.
In this she is not helped by David Leveaux’s decidedly non-epic production. The early war scene, for instance, is a botch, about as convincing as a camp skit, with big dramatic shadows cast on sidewalls (though we are meant to be in a field outside Poitiers at night) and a lot of running about the smallish stage of the Public’s Newman Theater. (The production that Hare himself directed in the same room in 1982 somehow got around this problem.) In other scenes, Leveaux is busy rather than profound, which is understandable because there’s a lot to figure out; Hare’s structure leaves several key roles underwritten. But the resulting raggedness means that many of the jokes, which require precision, don’t land, and the cinematic power of a play that creates tension through abrupt discontinuities and tonal contrast is vastly diminished. Without feeling viscerally how thrilling and ego-consuming Susan’s war was, for instance, the audience cannot properly grasp her ensuing boredom and monstrousness. Her wails of despair become little more than whines.
If Susan is never exactly a sympathetic figure — that’s part of the daring of the role — she must always seem a necessary corrective to the dull world around her. Oddly, in this production, the polarities are sometimes flipped, and it’s the phlegmatic diplomatic class, even including a marvelous tiny cameo by Ann Sanders as the wife of a Burmese diplomat, that gets the upper hand. Perhaps this is because the actors who play Brock (Corey Stoll), his superior Leonard Darwin (Byron Jennings), and the Foreign Office bureaucrat Sir Andrew Charleson (Paul Niebanck) bring to their characters the precision and confidence, even if it is bluster, that their scenes require so as not to go soft. Stoll, a stage actor best known from TV series like House of Cards, reads younger and sexier than previous Brocks, who Hare describes as “running to fat,” but makes Susan’s taking up with him, never the likeliest possibility, seem more understandable. Jennings gets just right both Darwin’s faith in protocol and his crushing disappointment when betrayed by his own government during the Suez Crisis of 1956, which Hare frames as the central rupture in England’s moral authority. And Niebanck, in a superb but late scene that might as well be called “Susan Meets Her Match,” finally drags the production right to the glittering heart of the matter:
SUSAN: Sir Andrew, do you never find it in yourself to despise a profession in which nobody may speak their mind?
CHARLESON: That is the nature of the service, Mrs. Brock. It is called diplomacy. And in its practice the English lead the world. The irony is this: We had an empire to administer, there were 600 of us in this place. Now it’s to be dismantled and there are 6,000. As our power declines, the fight among us for access to that power becomes a little more urgent, a little uglier perhaps. As our influence wanes, as our empire collapses, there is little to believe in. Behavior is all.
This is the kind of sentiment you might expect a playwright like Hare to mock, but in fact he does not mock it any more than he does Susan’s “psychiatric cabaret.” In his memoir he writes that Plenty “presents as equally costly all choices in a society which is institutionally hypocritical.” That barely containable double pressure keeps tearing open the seams of the characters’ pretenses, letting the tragedy of lives built on lies pour out. It is what makes the play, even in a production that’s only good, great.
Plenty is at the Public Theater through December 1.