As proof that the old adage “write what you know” can lead an artist seriously astray comes “The Break of Day,” Timberlake Wertenbaker’s first new play in four years. Wertenbaker has previously focused on other cultures, or centuries, or both. This time, her concerns are of the here and now and are close to her — and many theatergoers’ — lives. What’s surprising, then, is that a play potentially so immediate should have so little impact: This is that rare evening drawn largely from a writer’s own experience to ring entirely false.
The play is intended as a companion piece, set nearly a century later, to Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” with which Max Stafford-Clark’s Out of Joint company has been touring this play (as the same director earlier paired Wertenbaker’s joyous “Our Country’s Good” with Farquhar’s “The Recruiting Officer”).
But rather than illuminating the new play, the specter of Chekhov merely exposes its shortcomings. It’s one thing to write a play full of Chekhovian rue and wit, as Richard Nelson did last year with his Royal Shakespeare Company’s “New England.” It’s quite another to have Chekhov beating down a dramatist’s door and suffocating an arresting voice in the process.
The more immediate analogue is less Chekhov than “The Sisters Rosensweig,” and not just because the likable Brian Protheroe appeared in last year’s London premiere of the Wendy Wasserstein play, as well. Both focus on three women drawn together in England for a birthday, all of whom must confront the paths their lives have taken.
Successful magazine editor Tess (Catherine Russell), newly 40, is desperate to have a child with partner Robert (Nigel Terry), an actor who, conveniently, has opted out of a lucrative hospital TV series to play Vershinin in a new “Three Sisters.”
Tess’ best friend, Nina (Maria Friedman), is a singer-songwriter — cue composer Jeremy Sams’ atypically dull songs, the traditional title one excluded — married to Protheroe’s Jewish-American record executive, Hugh. The couple travel to an unnamed Eastern European country to adopt a child in what turns into an Orwellian black comedy of bureaucratic bungling and bribery.
Third chum April (Anita Dobson), a classics professor in a university under attack in the economically besieged ’90s, forswears romance and kids for the “clear-sighted” freedom to be on her own.
“No one talks about women like me,” April announces at the end. And Wertenbaker doesn’t either, consigning the character to such blatant pronouncements that it is small wonder Dobson looks embarrassed.
While April is given ludicrously short shrift, the second act juggles the separate quests of Nina and of Tess to start a family. And though Tess allows fertility treatments to take control of her life at the expense of her job and — ultimately — her relationship, Nina and Hugh eventually succeed in adopting a baby girl whom they bring back to their blighted England.
“I’ve brought my child to this country. I have to believe in it,” says Nina, but she’s the only one who does. Otherwise, this group of friends is so busy running down a run-down England — the National Health Service has its say in the guise of Tess’ surgeon brother, Jamie (David Fielder) — that one wonders why they don’t ever discuss anything mundane (and typically English), like the weather.
Attempts at comic relief in the first act mostly involve Tess’ lesbian maid, Natasha (Madlena Nedeva), whose name marks the only similarity to the extraordinary sister-in-law in “Three Sisters.” The second act has numerous jokes about American politesse (and a discussion of the Demeter myth that is quintessential Wertenbaker); but no one should have to speak lines like, “If it wasn’t for your sperm, I’d leave you.”
And when Robert bangs on about Chekhov’s belief in the future, one wonders what playwright he’s invoking, since the bleakness quotient in “Three Sisters” is second only to “King Lear.”
There’s not much that Stafford-Clark, a longtime Wertenbaker collaborator, can do with characters who arrive bearing figurative placards, beyond remembering that the art-obsessed Romanian was the weakest feature of this writer’s “Three Birds Alighting on a Field”: The Eastern Europeans here are no less perfunctory.
The kindest thing would probably have been to shelve a play that wants to be at least half a dozen plays — a lament for socialism among them — and ends up being none. It’s peculiar for a play written from the heart to leave an audience so totally unmoved.