July 2, 2008

‘Garden’ Path Leads to a World Beyond Wit

By Matt Wolf

The summer is supposed to be that time of year in the theater when the mind takes a vacation, which is why producers program shows in kind. This week sees the London opening of "High School Musical," based on the Disney Channel original movie, while Broadway recently welcomed an offering by the name of "Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy," with a revival of the eternally groovy "Godspell" to follow in due course. All real credit, then, to the Donmar Warehouse, that small but seismically important Covent Garden playhouse, for scheduling against the silly season tide a rare sighting of Enid Bagnold's play, "The Chalk Garden," running through Aug. 2.

To be sure, it's not as if Bagnold's 1955 text is in any way austere. Scarcely has Margaret Tyzack's magnificently doughty Mrs. St. Maugham - even the name sounds like a parody of some species of bygone grande dame - sailed into view before she poses the unexpected question, "Are my teeth on the table?" But for all that's comical and often eccentric about a family drama steeped in what was then the reasonably immediate legacy of Sigmund Freud, the play pulses with real feeling for its various generations of fiercely spoken women. It's Mrs. St. Maugham's teenage granddaughter, Laurel (Felicity Jones), who speaks of her mother (Suzanne Burden) marrying "for love," as if the very idea were somehow repugnant: affection may not be something of which the fearfully petulant Laurel knows much firsthand, but it courses through Michael Grandage's wry, ultimately profoundly wise production of a play about a well-spoken household discovering the melancholy landscape that lies beyond wit.

A way with language would seem to be just one of the qualities that brings together the imposing Mrs. St. Maugham and the newest addition to her domestic retinue, Miss Madrigal (Penelope Wilton), who is hired to be governess to the, uh, rather singular Laurel. ("I set fire to things," the 16-year-old brightly announces.) While Mrs. St. Maugham demands to know of her grown daughter how she could possibly wear beige, Miss Madrigal asserts herself as no stranger to unusual ways of being, idiosyncratically put forth. For starters, Miss Madrigal lets slip early on that she doesn't answer the telephone. "It disturbs me," she says, "to join the two worlds."

Are such people for real? Well you might ask of a manor house assemblage that includes Jamie Glover as a decidedly clenched manservant by the name of Maitland who reveals that he was a conscientious objector who has done time in prison. As if the onstage lineup weren't enough, there's even a retired butler, the sullen Pinkbell, who hovers over both the play itself and the none- too-verdant garden of the title without once making an actual appearance. Bagnold's gift lay in deepening an air of mystery that extends beyond the immediate confines of Peter McKintosh's gorgeous set, its furnishings themselves the products, one imagines, of so many individual minds.

It takes the arrival of a prominent judge (played with a delicious twinkle by Clifford Rose) to illuminate both Miss Madrigal's past and something about the methods of a dramatist busy trafficking in cleverness who can also show us the human fault lines driving even the most deftly turned phrase.

The production is supremely blessed by the star presence of two actresses who lift the material well beyond the archness one might expect from a household that theatricalizes everything. (The effect is as if the family in Noel Coward's "Hay Fever" had made a fetish of psychoanalysis.) For all that Tyzack suggests a variant on Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell as Mrs. St. Maugham makes a sotto voce summons for creme de menthe, she movingly suggests a life devoid of deep compassion in much the same way as that eponymous garden has lacked the proper soil in which plants can grow. Without in any way belaboring the point, Tyzack's queen bee shows us the extent to which the perpetually buzzing young Laurel is her grandmother's project: "She is my parchment sheet on which I write," Mrs. St. Maugham says of Laurel, without a trace of grandiosity, even if it's a later line - "One is not at one's best through mahogany" - that gets the laugh.

Wilton's altogether remarkable Miss Madrigal, hair piled high as if in sympathy with her employer, projects a stillness that starts with our first sight of the actress, her back to us as we take our seats in the theater. What secrets lie within this woman of seemingly preternatural composure? All is made clear in a closing scene that charts the trade-offs both women have accepted from lives that at least are finding their paths, however uncharted the way forward. "I shall continue to explore the astonishment of living," decides Miss Madrigal late in a sublime production in which that single word - "astonishment" - very much lingers in the air.

"The Common Pursuit" is far more mundane by comparison with "The Chalk Garden," even if the dramatist Simon Gray's people also know their way around a witticism or two. "Are you distraught?""No, perfectly traught," goes an exchange characteristic of these Cambridge undergraduates, circa 1968, who come unraveled in the nearly 20 years that follow. Fiona Laird's Menier Chocolate Factory revival of Gray's 1984 play boasts a superlative performance from James Dreyfus (late of the West End revival of "Cabaret"), here playing a narrow-eyed, gay truth-teller named Humphry who can't easily face the truth about himself. But for all the cultivated language - "I thought you might be he," says Robert Portal's Stuart, editor of the literary magazine that knits these characters together - the play's careful parceling out of dreams deferred and hopes cruelly dashed seems awfully pro forma. We've been here before.

For a while, the set-up is entertaining enough that one doesn't mind the absence of the depth that sneaks up on "The Chalk Garden," which shares an interest in disappointment as humankind's lot. How, after all, could one not respond to Reece Shearsmith's Nick, who talks of wanting to be a theater critic for a Sunday newspaper, as if such jobs actually proliferated? (He ends up a BBC cultural maven given to chat about the Concorde.) One wonders, though, what Nick would think confronted by this very play? I suspect he'd smile now and again and applaud Dreyfus's understatement while noting that this "Pursuit" now seems awfully common.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

(c) 2008 International Herald Tribune. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.