When Wystan met Benjamin
by Richard Dodds
Alan Bennett's plays, of which there are many, are often embraced in London and just as often ignored by Broadway. This is not an attack on any cultural shortcomings on this side of the Atlantic, for Bennett's plays are often so UK-centric that even the playwright was pleasantly surprised when a play such as The History Boys found popularity Stateside. But his follow-up play, The Habit of Art, embraced by London critics and audiences, moved no New York theaters to take it on. Happily, Theatre Rhinoceros is providing local audiences the opportunity to see this challenging, insightful, and entertaining play in one of Rhino's classiest productions.
The 2009 play indeed contains references that U.S. audiences can't be expected to understand, but you can consider them filigree on the overarching story that has no geographic boundaries. Actually, make that overarching stories, for there are two plays happening simultaneously, a situation that adds both complexity and clarity. At its very core, the play is about an imagined reunion of two aging titans of 20th-century culture: poet W.H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten. Out of their clashing temperaments come insights into the often-gapping divide between art and artist, as well as the coping mechanisms needed when the creative well begins to go dry.
But there is much more than these themes circling around the core. Director John Fisher has expertly staged this play of interwoven scenarios and complex staging on Glenn Johnson's set that represents Auden's retirement apartment at Oxford as rudimentarily rendered in a rehearsal studio where the actors, playwright, and stage managers struggle to pull off a run-through of the Auden-Britten play. These characters also have their own issues that parallel, explain, and augment the play within the play, and with egos clashing and insecurities erupting, layers of humor and drama are continuously being added.
But back to Auden and Britten, whose extended scene together is at the heart of the play. Britten has surprised Auden by requesting a meeting, these former artistic collaborators now long estranged. Britten comes looking for advice, while Auden briefly allows himself to believe Britten is asking him to be the librettist of a new opera Britten is basing on Death in Venice. Since the Thomas Mann novel centers on a famous author who fixates on an underage boy while on vacation, Britten is worried that the story may be too revealing of his own interest, usually chaste, he assures Auden, in lads whose voices haven't yet changed. For Auden, this discretion is a non-issue, a point emphasized by a rent boy hired by Auden who periodically arrives at not quite the right times.
The framing device allows for considerable latitude in numerous aspects. The fictional director has stated that he was not looking for actors who necessarily resembled Auden and Britten, which allows the actual director (Fisher) the same freedom. For starters, Fisher, a veteran playwright and director who still exudes youthful vigor, has cast himself as Britten, who admits to Auden he is dying. Donald Currie's age seems more congruent with Auden's, though hardly a match for the wrinkled, shambling mess that was Auden in his later years.
But these disparities, already forgiven within the context of the play, can be forgotten as Currie and Fisher parry and thrust, at times with warm concern, at other times with venom, as their reunion stumbles about in nostalgia of changing tones. Currie is amiable as the actor playing Auden, frequently stopping the play for a cue or a complaint about the playwright's more pretentious passages, and then turning into a hardened curmudgeon when his character hits his stride as Auden. Fisher, as the actor playing Britten, is fine if a little chipper in the less showy role, and as director-actor, fails to underline a revealing passage that the actor offers during a rehearsal break, one of the few missed beats in this otherwise confidently navigated excursion.
Justin Lucas makes the most of a comic showcase as the rent boy and as the actor playing him, and adeptly shifts into a historical provocateur in the final scenes. Craig Souza plays Humphrey Carpenter, who would eventually write definitive biographies of both Auden and Britten, and his split between dithering actor and booming narrator is fun to watch. Tamar Cohn creates a warmly patient stage manager dealing with crises large and small, Kathryn Wood only has a few chances to establish herself as the assistant stage manager, but Michael DeMartini can push his playwright character to the verges of over-the-top eye rolls and sputtering complaints.
The Habit of Art is a mighty work of playwriting that our larger theaters for some reason have bypassed. Theatre Rhino scores an "A" with this production, both for giving local audiences the opportunity to experience it, and by delivering it with such style.
The Habit of Art will run through April 13 at Z Below Theatre. Tickets are $15-$35. Call (866) 811-4111 or go to www.therhino.org.