American teenagers have many so-called formative experiences from their first kiss to going to the prom to learning to drive a car. And then there’s Susan Traherne, the maddening center of David Hare’s maddening play Plenty, whose life is both irrevocably shaped and ultimately destroyed by the euphoria she felt as an idealistic 17-year-old British girl working in France as part of the resistance movement during World War II. After that, how can a career in advertising, a comfortable marriage, or a dozen black evening gowns compete with providing arms to the French and outsmarting the Germans?
Hare’s answer is clear, but it’s not altogether convincing. More than three decades after the play first premiered in the U.S. at the Public Theater (where it is not so coincidentally being revived), I still find the work’s premise to be fundamentally flawed. Plenty is meant to be both character study and metaphor, but it doesn’t satisfactory fulfill the requirements on either count. We’re meant to believe Susan goes stark raving mad from her disappointment in the world, as if the concept of chemical imbalances and bad genes never existed. And were the millions of men and women who managed to adjust quite nicely to their calmer, more prosperous lives in the 1950s and 1960s the ones who didn’t get it right?
What it takes to cover the work’s imbalances is a great actress. (Kate Nelligan was astounding in the original Off-Broadway production, while marvelous Meryl Streep was, a tad surprisingly, less than stunning in the 1985 film version). Fortunately, at the center of David Leveaux’s Off-Broadway revival is Oscar winner Rachel Weisz, who hands in a fully committed portrait of Susan, whom, to Hare’s credit, we see as both victim and victimizer over a nearly 20-year timespan.
Gorgeous no matter which age she is playing (a slight problem as Weisz never seems to physically deteriorate the way Susan does mentally), Weisz’s Susan proves to be an almost near-fatal attraction to a variety of men who deserve better, including her loving milquetoast diplomat husband (a very effective Corey Stoll); good-hearted jazz musician Mick (a fine Leroy McClain), with whom she tries to conceive a child; and Lazar (Ken Barnett), a fellow resistance fighter who carries the torch for her for two decades, only to have it shockingly doused when he tries to reignite it.
Indeed, part of the braveness of Weisz’s performance is her willingness to let Susan’s inner ugliness come through. Her later dealings with Brock, who tragically refuses to abandon his wife, are sometimes hard to watch, and her evisceration of his boss, Leonard Darwin (a pitch-perfect Byron Jennings), at a supposed-to-be festive dinner party is little short of monstrous. True, Susan sees both men as the embodiment of a too-content, money-hungry post-war world, and one can be pretty sure that Hare shares his heroine’s worldview. (One must remember now that the work was written in the full bloom of the Margaret Thatcher-Ronald Reagan era, which tested the patience of numerous artists and activists.)
Perhaps to balance the scales slightly, Susan shows consistent kindness to her bohemian best friend Alice (a delicious Emily Bergl, who appears at time to be secretly auditioning for the role of Sally Bowles in the next revival of Cabaret.). And yet even Alice’s loyalty to the increasingly unstable Susan feels somewhat questionable at times.
An imperfect if often riveting piece of theater, Plenty does leave plenty of things for us to think about.