Rachel Weisz is mesmerizing in the first New York revival of “Plenty,” the 1978 David Hare drama about a female British secret agent whose dissatisfying post-war life drives her slowly mad -- but the award-winning actress would have been better served by a more coherently directed and designed production.
The Public Theater produced the first staging of “Plenty” in 1982, starring Kate Nelligan. A few years later, it was a celebrated Meryl Streep film. “Plenty” is now at The Public again, directed by five-time Tony nominee David Leveaux (“Nine,” “The Real Thing”).
“Plenty” is a story about grand expectations and subsequent disillusionment in the wake of World War II, when there was an unrealized belief that post-war England would be in a period of wealth: “We’re all going to be rich … peace and plenty,” says Alice (Emily Bergl), the Bohemian roommate of Weisz’s unstable Susan Traherne.
We meet Susan at the “end” of her story, in her flat, where she and Alice (Emily Bergl) are considering a lump on the floor: a mildly obese, naked man, bleeding from his thumb. The man is her diplomat husband (Corey Stoll), who isn’t dead, as he first appears, but is, at least, ruined. Susan has been working diligently to destroy his career.
From there, we flash back 20 years to France, where Susan is at her most vibrant, as a teenager aiding the resistance. A soldier has parachuted into a field and their worries about avoiding the Gestapo paint a clear picture of her as an adrenaline junkie.
So what’s an adrenaline junkie to do when world affairs defy her another hit? Have a long, slow meltdown, it turns out.
Part of my difficulty with “Plenty” is that it can be hard to follow the chronology, even though we know it’s a non-linear story. Scenes are set between 1943 and 1962, and though they progress almost sequentially, there is little connective tissue from one to another.
In Leveaux’s interpretation, I was particularly unsure what time or place it was. Perhaps it was the dim lighting and relatively spare visual cues. Or maybe it was the fact Weisz is costumed as a fashion model with seemingly no regard for a given era.
Weisz, at least, offers a consistent portrayal of a woman who is manic, manipulative and hollow. The character’s arc is devastating, but -- and I mean this in the best possible way -- her performance is like a slow-motion car crash from which you can’t avert your eyes.
Stoll, seen this summer in The Public’s “Troilus and Cressida,” does good work as her listless and co-dependent spouse, Raymond Brock, whose eyes seem willingly shut to his wife’s deterioration. Bergl is excellent as the fun-loving and enabling roommate.
I also enjoyed Byron Jennings (Roundabout’s “She Loves Me”) as Leonard Darwin, a foreign serviceman, and Brock’s superior, whose crisis of conscience over English involvement in the Suez Canal fiasco is a metaphor for the crumbling British empire.
The turntable set features enormous moving walls, topped off by bars of electric light. A climactic scene that has Susan reliving her great, long ago period of perceived relevance sees one wall gradually leaning back on hydraulics to simulate a cliff, but its slow descent was a distraction from the already difficult-to-track proceedings.
“Plenty,” through Dec. 1 at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. Tickets: $95 and up. Call 212-967-7555.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn