Actor-turned-dramatist Stephen Churchett may write mediocre plays, but there’s nothing routine about the actors he attracts. His “Heritage” is a pallid addition to millennium literature with unearned Chekhovian pretensions, but it at least has George Cole, Tim Pigott-Smith and the ever-invaluable Gwen Taylor to deliver its none-too-stirring requiem.
The setting is an old-age home for ailing English soldiers who must watch as the leafy grounds are turned into a conference center typical of the market-led realities of late 20th-century British life. Cole plays the home’s inhabitant, Harry, whose (unseen) son-in-law is leading the move to modernize.
Very much seen are Harry’s children, gay antique dealer George (Pigott-Smith) , currently mourning the death of lover Stefan, and May (Taylor), busily nagging 19-year-old son Rupert (Gideon Turner), who has come to interview grandpa about growing old. May would be happier were her developer husband not having a fling with the home’s sprightly PR lady, Ginny (Judy Flynn). In one of the neater ironies of the play, May discovers her spouse’s adultery via that most useful irritant of contemporary accessories — the mobile phone.
For much of the first act, director Mark Rayment helps capture the particular intimacies of a family who know everyone else’s lines: One is always aware of the affection that underlies May and Rupert’s sparring, just as the sound of helicopters signals the less-than-bucolic nature of Johan Engels’ seemingly pastoral design. But as with Churchett’s previous “Tom and Clem,” the playwright simply can’t resist the lowbrow: An onstage tree is used for more than its share of urination jokes, while Ginny quickly ceases to have any reality whatsoever: She’s the play’s resident buffoon.
What integrity remains is due to a fine company, among whom Taylor takes top honors, her face hardening in response to a betrayal. A different sort of reticence distinguishes Cole’s Harry, who can express interest in his grown son’s partner only after his death. Pigott-Smith just about survives a mawkish breakdown early on to field one of the best second-act ripostes.
Churchett’s point is that these are all decent people (Ginny aside) trying against the odds to do the decent thing, which makes it a double shame that “Heritage” is so dull.