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A CurtainUp Review

They all ought to be liquidated [Everyone in our parents' generation]. They've had two frightful wars they've done nothing about except fight in and they're rotten to the core. . .They're so beastly selfish they think of no one but themselves. And they're like rabbits about sex. --- Phillip to his fiancée Mary.
I never would have imagined, who would, I mean think of you and me sitting here after all that's happened, and in a discussion of how we're to become related by the back door so to speak! ---Jane, Philip's mother to Mary's father, now her friend, but at one time her adulterous lover.

Simon Dutton and Sophie Ward in Nothing
(Photo: Richard Campbell)
Most of this season's Brits Off Broadway series have been solo play, the exception being Race (see review link below) and Nothing which just opened. There are six performers on stage in Race and seven in Nothing, but, except that both are Brits Off Broadway productions and uniquely entertaining, that's where any resemblance ends. The Race ensemble expressed themselves physically rather than through dialogue. The Nothing cast feasts on dialogue. That dialogue is so deliciously studded with arch one-liners that it makes Nothing quite something!

The source for this acerbic Cowardesque comedy of manners is a 1952 novel by a much admired but largely forgotten novelist named Henry Green (a pseudonym for Henry Vincent Yorke). While novels and short stories are notoriously difficult to adapt for the stage, Andrea Hart (who also plays one of the characters) has quite brilliantly tapped into Nothing's potential as a dark comic portrait of some middle-aged British bluebloods whose fortunes have plummeted.

Set in post World War II London, these upper class Brits' diminishing prosperity is metaphorically echoed by a friend's battle to withstand the effects of an infection from a nail in the toe of his left shoe. As this never seen friend looses first a toe, then an ankle, then his whole leg and, finally, his life, so their once bottomless bank accounts become smaller and smaller. What's more, father time is niggling away at their youth.

As re-staged from the original Citizens Theater of Glasgow production by Philip Prowse, the roundelay of separate but connected conversations plays out on a set that is dominated by a series of small round restaurant tables reminiscent of Terrence Rattigan's Separate Tables or Harold Pinter's Celebration. Gerry Jenkinson's subtle lighting and the overall black, white and red palette (for costumes as well as set) subtly blend in two small desks at either side of the upstage playing area and two black couches right in the middle. These additional props handily accommodate some of the telephone conversations between the two younger members of the cast and several scenes in more domestic settings.

As the audience files in, the tables are empty except for an apparently exhausted waiter (Tristram Wymark) napping in a chair (his exhaustion yet another metaphor for the main characters' exhausted resources?) He is snapped back into action by the arrival of the two dominating characters, Jane Wetherby (Sophie Ward) and John Pomfret (Simon Dutton).

It is the engagement of their twenty-one-year old offspring -- John's daughter Mary (Candida Benson) and Jane's son Phillip (Pete Ashmore) -- that is the pivotal event jumpstarting the fairly weightless plot. What gives the romance a twist is that Jane and John Pomfret were lovers before they became great friends and it's not all that unlikely that Mary and Phillip are half siblings. Not surprisingly, the engagement stirs up quite a tempest of feelings and events which are recounted mostly through gossipy téte-à-têtes. These include not just the young couple and their parents but Liz and Richard (Andrea Hart and Derwent Watson), the other woman and man in their lives

While John (a wonderful upper class Brit of a certain age performance by Simon Dutton) is delighted at the prospect of the impending wedding, the acid-tongued Jane is less than thrilled to find herself and her ex-lover finally becoming related through their children or as she puts it " through the back door." As brilliantly played by the elegant Sophie Ward, Jane is prone to play the pity-me-and-my headache game. She is obviously envious of her son's suddenly blossoming love life which exacerbates her unacknowledged fear about her own future, which is already overcast by having to cope the financial difficulties that are dogging her (and everyone else of her class). With typical stiff upper lip, ladylike reserve, Ward's Jane manages to manipulate her son, John and her never seen young daughter Penelope and, at least temporarily win her nasty little game.

Dutton and Ward are sturdily supported by the rest of the cast, with Andrea Hart especially good as the attractive but doomed to be forever second-best Liz. Young Phillip may denounce his parents generation as "rotten to the core" and "beastly selfish" but one can't help admiring their linguistic elegance. Their way with a poisonous quip can hardly be discounted as Nothing.

To read our review of Race, go here. Still to come in the Brits series:
June 13 to Wednesday, June 28, Stories for the Wobbly Hearted (to be reviewed)
Thursday, June 29 to Sunday, July 2, Love Me Tender: The Songs of Elvis Presley
June 13 to Sunday, July 2, After the End (to be reviewed).

Adapted by Andrea Hart from Henry Green novel
Originally directed by Robert David MacDonald at Glasgow Citizen Theatre and re-staged by Philip Prowse
Assistant Director: Geoffrey Cauley
Cast: Simon Dutton ( John Pomfret), Candida Benson (Mary Pomfret), Sophie Ward (Jane Wetherby), Pete Ashmore (Philip Wetherby), Andrea Hart (Liz Jennings, Derwent Watson (Richard Watson, Tristram Wymark (Gaspard).
Costume Design: Jane Hamilton
Lighting Design: Gerry Jenkinson
Running time: Approximately 100 minutes including a 20-minute intermission
Part of BRITS OFF BROADWAY 59E59 Theaters
From June 7 to Sunday, July 2, 2006
Tickets: $45 ($31.50 for 59E59 members)
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on June 9th press performance
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